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(The Meaning of North, South, East and West - and How to
Find Them)

"Imagine that you are in a sailboat. You are
faced with the problem of crossing the three
thousand miles of open ocean that separate New
York and London. You are told that the
direction (in nautical terms, 'bearing') you want
to go in to get to London is roughly northeast.
But you have no instruments of any kind to help
you! Once you leave visible landmarks near the
shore, everything from horizon to horizon is just
water, all of which looks pretty much the same!
How are you going to find your way?!"

"A good question! But first of all, what does northeast mean?"

"Well, Lou, the earth rotates about an
imaginary line called its AXIS. The two
points on the earth's surface where the axis
emerges are called the 'NORTH POLE' and
the 'SOUTH POLE.' Any line pointing along
the Earth's surface towards the North Pole is
said to be pointing 'north.' Any line pointing
along the Earth's surface towards the South
Pole is said to be pointing 'south.' 'East' is at
right angles to north in a clockwise direction;
'west' is at right angles to north in a
counterclockwise direction. 'Northeast' is the
direction halfway between north and east!"

"I got it! But be practical, Lulu. There you are in the middle of the ocean. Nothing to see
but water in every direction. How do you know which way is north? Or any other
"What do you think you could see that would always be in the same direction?"

"How about the sun?"

"Well, your thinking is up in the air, Lou, which
is where it should be! But the sun isn't so easy.
The trouble with the sun is that its position is
always changing - it changes with the time of
day and it changes throughout the year! But
when it's at its ZENITH, the highest point that it
reaches each day, it is directly south if you're
north of the equator, and directly north if you're
south of the equator!"

"That sounds pretty good!"

"Yeh! But how easy is it to know when it's reached its highest point? It can be done with an
instrument called a SEXTANT, but it takes some skill! But remember! You don't have any
But all (and you) is not lost! Strangely enough, in some ways it's easier to get direction at

"You mean the stars!"
"Not any star, Lou, but a
particular star. As the
Earth rotates on its axis,
all the stars except one
appear to move in circles
across the sky during the
night. The only star that
doesn't seem to move is
'alpha Ursae Minoris!' To
you, the 'North Star!'"

"OK, so to go north, you go towards the point on the horizon directly beneath the North
Star (the green dot). But what do you do when it's cloudy or it's daytime?!"

"Good questions! Now we have to allow you an instrument! You could use...a compass! Go
to 'Direction' and click on 'The Compass'!!""

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