Like a Butterfly’s Wings in China

A single book that I read as a fifth grader has had quite an impact on my life. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is based on the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, born in Salem in 1773. Nat loved math (he taught himself algebra and calculus) and showed me how it could be important. He was interested in celestial navigation, and honed these skills during five voyages that took him around the world. Nat famously steered his ship home to Salem during a blinding snowstorm one Christmas, confident in his calculations.

As he used the published navigational tables, Nat found thousands of errors and realized that any of them could cause a shipwreck. He recomputed all of the tables and added clear instructions. Having decided to “Put in the book nothing I can’t teach the crew”, Nat worked patiently with the unschooled crew members. By the end of the voyage, each could calculate lunar observations and plot the ship’s position.

Nat has been my inspiration, both in my studies of mathematics and in my efforts to teach it.

Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, published in 1802, was just updated in 2002 and is still in use today. Yes, Amazon has it. Here are pix of the copy my husband found for me many years ago.

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Do you know what a haversine is?

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3 thoughts on “Like a Butterfly’s Wings in China

    • How did you get interested in collecting Bowditches? Have you seen the oil portrait of him at the Peabody Museum in Salem? It was painted by Charles Osgood in 1835, and most the images you can find of Bowditch are based on it.

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