Why I Always Get Excited About Columbus Day!

"I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." -Isaac Newton

"Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean." -Christopher Reeve

Today is Columbus Day here in the United States. And unlike pretty much everyone else I know, I've been looking forward to Columbus Day for weeks, now.

Why's that?

After all, it's not like I get off from work, or that I think Columbus was some idealized version of a human being. One needs to look only at Columbus' own words to know what motivated him to take his great journey from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean:

"But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them."

That, coupled with the eventual destruction of the indigenous people of the Americas' civilizations, has led many (including three of my country's states) to reject the holiday outright.

But I look forward to it, anyway, and I'm excited now that it's here!

Columbus Day, to me, is the one day of the year that we commemorate the human spirit of exploration. And -- to me -- there's nothing quite like... well...

That's right. The sky. The stars. The heavens. Up. Whatever you want to call it, it's everything external to the Earth.

Not that the Earth isn't wonderful. (Pictures of it leave me awestruck all the time.) It's home to us all. It's just that...

Well, it's just that the Earth is so little. And there's so much beyond it, so much that's out there, that we're only beginning to get a handle on.

We live in a galaxy, tens of thousands of light years across, containing hundreds of billions of stars.

Our Sun, the root of all life on Earth, isn't much to look at. We're only now discovering that these stars out there are loaded with planets! At first, they were mostly big, gas giants (like the four we have), but we've started to discover rocky, Earth-like planets, too.

And who knows what sort of life is out there? For all we know, there might have been life (or could even still be life) elsewhere in our own Solar System!

But all of that doesn't even scratch the surface of our Universe. Our galaxy, tens of thousands of light years in size, doesn't even compare to the Universe as a whole, which is tens of billions of light years in size, and contains about a trillion galaxies!

We're only now -- over the last 100 years -- figuring out how to make sense of all of this. And what we've got now isn't perfect: we've still got a lot of unanswered questions.

The beauty of it, though, is that, whatever "the right answer" actually is, we're a lot closer to it now, at this moment in time, than we've ever been before. Columbus Day isn't just a time to mark the spirit of exploration that compels us to seek what's out there, it's a time to mark just how far we've come in our understanding!

And also, of course, to mark just how far we've explored, and where we came from.

And that's what always gets me excited about Columbus Day. So explore something today. Learn about it. And I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

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I think there are more worthy explorers, like Darwin, than nasty old Columbus.

Just saying.

But... He made also made the biggest navigational blunders in history, and from what I've read he may have continued to believe he reached the Indies after others figured out his mistake. A little like landing on the Moon and thinking you've reached Mars...

Hey guys, give Chris a break, will'ya? He was financed by Queen Isabela of Spain, and so was little more than a mercenary of sorts... But if you want to blame someone on this day for the sad fate of Native Americans, find a Spanish or Portuguese embassy/consulate nearby and picket the entrance. It is Spain and Portugal who initiated colonization of the "New World", after all...

Exploration is great, but would you feel the same way if you were born and raised on an Indian reservation? I'd be all for celebrating, say, the discovery of Antarctica, but I can't ignore what holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving symbolize to American Indians.

Apart from Leif Eriksson, I seem to recall that St.Brendan sailed fromm Ireland to a big place in the West and back, using the very primitive boats available to the Irish at the period.
Since Brendan and Eriksson both had more modest ships than Columbus, they score on two points; nautical accomplishments and zero genocide.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 11 Oct 2010 #permalink

see what we hear outside the US is that Columbus deliberatly 'fudged' his figures to help his cause...also that european intellectuals figured that there must be a giant continent somewhere out there

Columbus had the guts and persistence to try when everyone else said no, it's impossible. That is exploration.

Consistent with what Chris @7 reports, I understand that the reluctance of many kings to finance Columbus was not due to belief that the earth was flat (a myth apparently introduced by Washington Irving) but due to their correct belief that Columbus was giving a lowball estimate of the circumference of the Earth. I don't know about European intellectuals deducing the existence of the Americas, but I have heard claims that Portuguese fishermen were working the Newfoundland coast in the late fifteenth century, implying that Columbus wasn't even the first of his generation to reach the Americas.

St. Brendan's journey, which Birger @6 mentions, is so far only a legend. Leif Eriksson's journey has been confirmed: amateur archeologists found the site of his attempted settlement in Newfoundland (at L'Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland). We also know that the Vinland settlement was abandoned on purpose: they took the door with them. The Vikings apparently weren't any better at getting along with the locals than the Spanish were (part of why the Viking settlements in Greenland died out while the Inuit survived), and the Vikings lacked the germs and gunpowder the Spanish would bring 500 years later.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Oct 2010 #permalink

Yup, Columbus Day does celebrate "the human spirit of exploration."

But now let's try to reinterpret also a few other holidays.
Easter of course is a metaphorical decendant of the Rite of Spring. Certainly, a celebration of nature. Halloween and Thanksgiving are perhaps harvest festival; of course every farmer is a naturalist of sorts. And then Christmas is a descendant of the winter solstice celebration; all ancient peoples lived under the stars and knew them.

Perhaps it is best to think of holidays metaphorically.

Well enough of my musing.

@5 - Absolutely right! And he did it 500 years before Columbus. Not too shabby.

Perhaps we need a Thales of Miletus day.

Even though Christopher Columbus was a deadly menace to the Native Americans, you have to admit that he played a huge part in the colonization of America. If he hadn't blundered on his voyage to India, what would have happened? Would there be an America today?

By Kaycee Devereux (not verified) on 15 Oct 2010 #permalink

But if you want to blame someone on this day for the sad fate of Native Americans, find a Spanish or Portuguese embassy/consulate nearby and picket the entrance. It is Spain and Portugal who initiated colonization of the "New World", after all...

Even before Columbus reached the Americas, the Spanish were already in the process of exterminating the inhabitants of the Canary Islands.

but I have heard claims that Portuguese fishermen were working the Newfoundland coast in the late fifteenth

I read that they were Basque or Bristol fishermen, or maybe both. Apparently it was a trade secret.

GUIs... etc. (I assume that you already know that you have to understand loops , control statements etc...). Since you are studying CS, it won't be so hard for you i guess.