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    The Human Art of Way Finding
    From: Gary LaPook
    Date: 2013 Apr 1, 23:31 -0700
    This may be interesting.



    April 1, 2013
    The Human Art of Way-Finding

    By Peter Monaghan

    While paddling one day in 2003 in Nantucket Sound, John Edward Huth became disoriented, but thanks to some basic skills, he returned safely to land.

    At the same time, half a mile away, two confused college students turned their kayaks out to sea rather than to the shore, and perished.

    The incident so shook Huth that he set about exploring the principles of navigation, from ancient times to modern.

    The result, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, out this week from Harvard University Press, is only obliquely related to the physics of mass and gravity, which is the career's work of this Harvard professor. Huth dedicates the book to the two kayakers who died that day.

    Lamenting the loss of navigational skills, he set out to collect in one volume the many schemes that kept our forebears alive. Ancient explorers could, through navigational nous, undertake voyages over great expanses of ocean and land to establish settlements and trade routes, and return home.

    As Huth notes, much can be gleaned from extant isolated groups such as the Inuit of the Far North who navigate by the stars, horizons, currents, and path of the sun. Harder to gauge is how Norse explorers settled Iceland in the ninth century—and arrived to find Irish monks already living there. With only crude, open boats, those religious voyagers had traversed vast, stormy seas where fog often obscured the sun.

    Huth shows how supposedly primitive navigators read the weather for signs of favorable or threatening winds, interpreted waves and tides, and maintained a course along a line of latitude using the height of stars above the horizon. They also mastered arcane phenomena—tactics that are now known by such terms as attack angles, directional compensation, stern pry and draw, and mooning the current.

    If stranded and unequipped with a GPS device, how can a hiker use the moon and planets, and even jet contrails, to find his way? How reliable is dead reckoning, the practice of deducing location from a log of speed, journey time, and other factors?

    Not very reliable, it seems. Aware of that, Lewis and Clark, while seeking a Northwest Passage, took celestial observations during any clear weather, to correct their calculation.

    Old navigational techniques were rarely recorded but rather passed on through apprenticeship. Huth notes that it is possible to piece together some techniques from archaeological remains. "And sometimes Norse sagas contain some clues, if you really dig into them," he says by phone from Cambridge. Similarly, lyrical Tahitian chants of today provide hints of navigational schemes from the Polynesian past. Such sources can, however, be as opaque as what Huth calls "mysterious nuggets"—insider tips—in the how-to books of outdoors enthusiasts.

    The theoretical physicist in Huth appreciates that it has always taken more than romanticism and daring to venture into potentially fatal geographies. "Humans are inclined to a scientific kind of thinking," he says. "If you look at how sails can work into the wind, the fluid dynamics of that are so complicated that really they weren't explained properly until 1970." Yet by about 1500 BC, ancient Polynesians figured out systems of wind-powered navigation "that would allow them, ultimately, to make jumps of 2,500 miles or so, which is just astonishing."

    Recent studies are explaining the psychology and physiology of losing one's way. Researchers have, for example, created large databases of the experiences of the lost: airplane pilots who experience detachment from body, aircraft, and earth known as "break-off"; or hunters who track prey so intently that they develop "wood shock," losing sense of their location. Lost people commonly fall prey to walking around in circles, and "map bending," the tendency to force natural features to accord with maps. "Perceptions get distorted with a fight-or-flight response," says Huth.

    Such dreaded sensations may stump even traditional navigators. In the language of the Marshall Islands, "wiwijet" occurs when a lost canoeist, receiving no help from spirits, paddles disoriented until dead.

    The neuroscience of the navigating brain increasingly engages researchers. Among their discoveries: Regions of the brain that are primitive in evolutionary terms permit such feats as "survey knowledge," where close observation of terrain produces a sense of seeing it as if from above.

    One of Huth's key contentions is that people who retreat to a "bubble" of electronic gadgets have little chance of developing such skills. He writes: "As informational technology has grown, our ability to perceive and think independently without help from devices may be compromised to the point where we, not our forebears, are the primitive ones."

    Today's college students, like most of their contemporaries, often wander within that bubble. So Huth was delighted when, in 2008, Harvard granted him approval to begin offering a freshman-seminar course on "primitive navigation."

    Huth coaches students in basic navigational procedures. He finds they take to the skills quickly, and report years later that they have retained the knowledge.

    The students undertake challenging assignments. One group, for example, investigated how Norse seafarers could have used the prismatic qualities of sunstone to locate the sun through cloudy or icy skies. Another pored over satellite images to ascertain that Northern European churches of the Middle Ages, but not Southern European ones, faced east—and true east, not just toward sunrise on some particular date.

    Last fall one student, Mengruo Yang, won Harvard's Conant Prize, established in the 1950s for outstanding work in the natural sciences, for her analysis of James Cook's navigational logs. In her project, posted online, she calculated not only the precise spots where Cook made his measurements around the South Pacific by using the moon as a sort of chronometer, but also how much his measurements erred—little, she found.

    In her video entry, she plugged Huth's book: "Order your copy!," she wrote. "The next time some mafia kidnaps and drops you in the middle of a forest, you'll be prepared."

    Short of that unhappy circumstance, suggests Huth, join him in enjoying "the very human art of way-finding."
    Tim Collins

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