On Thursday, February 16, at 5:36 PM I was standing in a faculty meeting when my phone vibrated. I fished it out of my pocket and looked at the screen. I had just received a voicemail and a text from the same number, a number I didn’t recognize. The text asked, simply: “Is this the phone of Darin Hayton?”
I stepped outside and listened to the voicemail. The person identified himself as a researcher for This American Life, asked if he had reached Darin Hayton, and wanted to ask about astrolabes. His message sounded urgent. I was intrigued. Why would anybody feel a pressing need to learn about astrolabes, at 5:30 on a Thursday evening? And why would that person not just turn to Wikipedia or some other on-line resource? So I decided to respond.
As I was still, at least physically, in a meeting, I texted rather than phoned and offered to call later that evening or the next morning. He asked that I call him as soon as I was free.
When I phoned he immediately started asking about astrolabes. He had clearly done some research on them but wanted to confirm what he had learned—e.g., Hipparchus had developed the mathematics but not an instrument; early instruments dated from the late 9th century; you could use it to tell time. He was particularly interested in developments introduced by 10th-century Islamic scholars. He asked about different innovations we might attribute to them and wanted to know how they improved the astrolabe. Most of the innovations he mentioned cannot easily or definitively be traced back to early Islamic instrument makers. We chatted for 10–15 minutes. As our conversation wound down, I tried to find out why he was so interested in astrolabes. He offered few details, saying only that he was doing research for an up-coming This American Life show on a man from Alabama who had studied astrolabes and had even built his own. He wouldn’t tell me the man’s name, but did mention that he had recently died.
After we hung up I tweeted about my brush with fame. I am clearly a nerd since I think having This American Life phone me constitutes fame.
Fifteen minutes or so later as I stood in my bathroom brushing my teeth, my phone rang again. Same guy confirming a couple points and asking if his formulation was correct. Something to the effect: the Greek astronomer Hipparchus developed the mathematics behind the astrolabe and 10th-century Islamic scholars refined it to time their daily prayers. Yes, I said, that’s fine.
Because I am always late to the party, I didn’t hear about S•Town until late April, a month or so after it was released and became an instant hit. Finally, when a friend suggested I listen to it because they “talk about astrolabes,” I downloaded it and listened while I repaired my washing machine. Sure enough, about 15 minutes in John B. McLemore (the main character) mentions astrolabes:
Because kids are talking about getting girls, or deer hunting, or football. Whereas I was interested in the astrolabe, sundials, projective geometry, new age music, climate change, and how to solve Rubik’s cube.
But he doesn’t say much more. Then, 30 minutes later, the astrolabe suddenly returns in the context of telling time. Brian Reed, the host, reflects on various methods for tracking time, then describes the astrolabe:
BRIAN REED: The astrolabe looks kind of like a clock crossed with a compass. It’s a flat dial with a map of the night sky laid over it, and a pointer, or I guess a sight, attached on top of that. You pick a star in the sky, and aim the sight at it, twist the sky map until it aligns with the sight in a certain way. And then the dial shows you your direction, as well as the month, day, and time.
It’s a beautiful, complex device. And as a kid, John longed to figure it out, to put himself inside the brains of the people who puzzled through the earliest versions—the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who devised the mathematics behind it, or the 10th century Islamic scholars, who refined the invention to help them time their daily prayers.
John wanted to go through what they had to go through to create an astrolabe. Which is why he made his own, designed specifically for the coordinates of this house. It hangs on the wall of his mother’s bedroom. That’s what he’s showing me, his astrolabe, when Skyler Goodson happens to walk in the front door.
When I heard this, I immediately recalled the man who had phoned six weeks earlier asking about astrolabes. There, in Brian Reed’s brief description, was the final version of what the man on the phone had crafted. It turns out that the man on the phone had been doing research for S•Town.
Thanks to S•Town and John B. McLemore, astrolabes are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. Reddit pages on S•Town have astrolabe discussions. Websites promise to show you “How to Build an Astrolabe Like John B. McLemore From ‘S- Town’.” S•Town fans are turning up in museums asking to see astrolabes.
Hey This American Life, perhaps you would like to do a whole show on astrolabes. While not as eccentric as John B. McLemore, I have built my own astrolabe, I know its history better than most, and I’m available. Your researcher/fact checker has my number. Have him give me a call.
- In talking to him, it seems he started with on-line resources, including my An Introduction to the Astrolabe. ↩
- He probably used a euphemism, but somehow I think John B. McLemore would have preferred “died,” and I prefer it. ↩
- And because I can’t just be late to the party, I find out late that I am late to the party, I learned about S•Town while listening to an old podcast of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me featuring Sarah Koenig[3a] that I had downloaded and then didn’t listen to for nearly a month. And even then I was in no hurry to listen to S•Town. ↩
3a. I should probably point out that the name Sarah Koenig meant nothing to me because I am one of perhaps only a handful of people, including John B. McLemore, who has never listened to Serial and only vaguely knows what it is. ↩
- To be exact, Brian Reed’s description of the astrolabe comes at 44:05 into chapter 1. Astrolabes are mentioned in two other places: the first time is about 16 minutes into chapter 1; the last time is 2:35 into chapter 7. I don’t think I would say, as my friend did, that they “talk about astrolabes” in S•Town, but any popular culture reference is better than none. ↩