Finding Our Way

Long before GPS, people traveled vast distances using only their highly developed observation skills, the clues they could find in their surroundings, and some simple instruments. In his wonderful book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, Harvard physicist John Huth examines the various arts of navigation and wonders what we lose when modern technology usurps our innate capacity to find our own way. Huth weaves together astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and ethnography to put us in the shoes, ships, and sleds of those who have gone before us and figured out how to get from point A to point B without GPS, smart phone, or even a map. Huth discusses some of the ideas in his book below.

Huth also reminds us that we can all be navigators capable of learning direction-finding techniques ranging from the simplest to the most sophisticated. Careful observation of the sun and moon, tides and ocean currents, weather and atmospheric effects can be all we need to find our way.  Huth starts by looking at basic land navigation based on “dead reckoning” and progresses to the more sophisticated application of compasses and maps. He then examines celestial navigation and navigation at sea using waves, tides, currents, wind, and sailing vessels. He includes a long and helpful section about weather and its impact on navigation. Huth also includes stories of navigation from other cultures, including  Arab traders, Vikings, and Pacific Islanders.

Had these more primitive (we assume) civilizations failed to discover or neglected these techniques, they would surely have failed.  We no longer need these skills generally on account of technology, but we are not necessarily the better off for it.  We now demand the best and fastest route anywhere yet have lost the delight of finding what we weren’t looking for while a bit off the beaten path (the best thing about a good bookstore, in my view).

We also demand more precision than is necessary and (sometimes) more precision than is possible in our GPS-covered world.  Primitive navigation was approximate and that had to be good enough.  Precision isn’t available in the markets either, but that doesn’t stop us pretending it exists and demanding it all the same. For example, why do so many projections — often an educated guess at best — get carried out to multiple decimal places?

Finally, and most fundamentally, we have neglected the observational skills that not coincidentally lay at the heart of the scientific enterprise.  If we don’t watch, listen and interpret carefully, we can’t begin to make sense of the world around us and will have to rely upon others — directly or via modern technology — to show us the way, both literally and figuratively. And perhaps most vitally, without personal observation skills, we won’t be able to question or falsify whatever line we happen to be given. We may not even be able to see that something is wrong and perhaps terribly wrong.  If we can’t figure out where we’re going, any route will do.

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