Odds and quads

This 15th-century Islamic spherical astrolabe - the only complete example of its kind to survive - is one of the most striking objects in the University of Oxford's Museum of the History of Science.

October 7, 2010

Astrolabes are devices that map the heavens and bring them down to earth in an elegantly portable form. Something of an intellectual tour de force, useful for astronomy, astrology, surveying and calculation, they both tell the time and provide directions without the need for a compass or a clock.

The museum in Oxford has the largest and most important collection of astrolabes in the world.

Most astrolabes are flat discs, since the rare spherical examples are less versatile, as well as more difficult and expensive to make.

This one was designed to be held in the palm of the hand and must have been an extraordinarily potent symbol of cosmic mastery for its owner. Its elaborately decorated metalwork makes it clear that utility was less important than beauty.

The astrolabe will form part of an exhibition titled Al-Mizan: Sciences and Arts in the Islamic World, which opens at the museum on 26 October.

Send suggestions for this series on the treasures, oddities and curiosities owned by universities across the world to: matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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