The Guardian reports that recent scientific experiments confirm the use of Icelandic spar (a type of calcite) may have enabled the vikings to navigate without a compass even in cloudy weather. Apparently this stone is described in an Icelandic legend about a sailor called Sigurd, who used such a stone on a cloudy day to orient his ship. This may explain how the vikings were able to sail to America even in polar gloom. An interesting side point of the research is that, apparently, even a single cannon on an Elizabethan ship held enough iron to interfere with a compass, and sunstones may have been used by navigators to avoid this effect 4 centuries after the end of the viking era.

Of course the vikings knew nothing about the polarization of light or even the scientific processes by which instruments are calibrated and used. How did they discover this “magic” property, how did they believe it worked, and what did it tell them about the world around them? This kind of solution to complex navigation problems fascinates me as an example of science in an era when many phenomena of the natural world must surely have been seen as magic. Probably, the vikings had worked out sophisticated navigation techniques without any understanding of the nature of the heavens or the earth. It’s interesting to think about how far such science takes people before it breaks down or its contradictions force its adherents to find modern science. How do these processes work…?

Things one just leaves lying about...

Things one just leaves lying about...

I visited Denmark for a week last week, and amongst other places I visited was the National Museum of Photography, which was hosting an exhibition entitled Unintended Sculptures by the Danish photographer Henrik Saxgren. I was drawn to it by this picture on the poster, which is from Iceland. The exhibition is essentially a series of very large pictures of artificial objects left in natural environments, and is meant to provide a contrast of the two. Most of the pictures didn’t do this very well but the ones from Iceland were very stark and impressive. I like the idea of this type of art, found items or whatever it is called – but in this case the exhibition ultimately seemed like a bunch of fancily rebadged holiday snaps. And anyway, everything I have seen of Iceland suggests that anyone who goes there with a half-decent camera could open an exhibition of their holiday snaps and people would pay to see them.

So overall the exhibition was a bit disappointing – some shots of walls, a few weird cactusses and some big plastic stuff in a forest, and 4 amazing snapshots from Iceland. Go and see it if you’re in Copenhagen, it’s better than the Design Centre, but probably if you have to choose you’re better off going to the botanic gardens (where I saw a red squirrel!)

Also, Denmark is awesome and Danes are like vikings in suits! And they love Australians!