From sextant to Siri: How humanity lost its sense of direction

05/16/2014 4:48 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

John Huth is one of the many who looks around and sees, with some irritation, those with their noses stuck in a cellphone, especially the younger generations.

As he is a Harvard physics professor, he sees this all the time.

“I have this temptation to go up to them and shout: ‘Put that down! Put that down. You’re going to die! You’re going to die!’”

He’s decided that’s not the healthy approach, say, in a Starbucks, he told a laughing audience of 400 on Tuesday at the Linda Hall Library. But the author of “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” had a serious point.

“People are getting progressively tuned out to their environment” as they become more attached to those lovely electronic devices.

Huth’s introduction to his subject began with a tragedy: Two kayaking girls got lost in the fog in Nantucket Sound and died. This hit him hard, he said, because he had been paddling in the same waters that day and had no trouble returning safely. He thought of natural clues that could have helped, such as wave direction, wind direction and the different sounds of waves on various shorelines.

“We all have the mechanism in our brains designed to help us find our way,” he said, but just don’t exercise it.

It’s not that Huth has anything against technology. A professor of experimental particle physics, he works on electroweak symmetry breaking, and he is part of the Harvard team working with the European Center for Nuclear Physics superconducting super collider running under the Swiss-French border.

In fact, he ruefully noted that he’s found himself kayaking in Northeast waters without a compass more than once. (It should be noted that smartphones often have excellent compass apps, although the analog types are more resistant to saltwater and — saints preserve us — prone to exhausted batteries.)

He asked his indoor audience members to close their eyes and point south. Perhaps three-fourths were correct, which he said was a good showing compared with other audiences.

But it was an older crowd. Today’s kids are from a different era.

Huth’s book stems from his seminar that evolved into a course known by Harvard undergrads as “PrimNav,” which included astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, ethnography and good tales, that shows “primitive navigation” was really anything but.

One recounting in his book is of the legend of Baintabu, a woman skilled in building and steering outriggers in the Gilbert Islands. Returning from a raid on the Tarawa atoll, she and the chief in the lead canoe began arguing over directions. In frustration, he threw Baintabu into the sea.

Fortunately, she was picked up by the last canoe in the war fleet. That vessel was the only one to make it home to Abemama.

While appreciative of those sailing or trekking skills accumulated over the centuries, however, we should thank our lucky stars that our airplane pilots don’t need those same stars to get us to Paris on an evening flight. And asking Siri about directions is admittedly somewhat handier than using an sextant.

Still, Huth is not the only one who sees an overdependence on electronic devices.

“A lot of the common-sense stuff, they’ve never been exposed to it,” said Herbert Ridgely, an instructor at Bi-State Driving School. “Most of them have no idea of streets, have no idea which direction they’re going. They depend on their GPS.”

And places do exist where Google Maps won’t be much help, such as deep in the woods.

“We have very limited cellphone coverage in the park’s back country,” said Al Nash at Yellowstone National Park, “therefore you can’t triangulate with your phone.”

That’s when a sense of the key stars above can help, but don’t confuse them with the planets (clue: Mars does not twinkle). Also knowing a bit about winds, clouds, currents and birds is useful at times. In short, try to stay connected to nature.

That’s not to say you have to do what Huth did on a Jamaican beach, which is put a stick in the sand and place little pieces of coral to track the tip of the shadow it left. What was he doing? Finding his latitude — to within a degree, he said proudly.

The webcast of Huth and others at Linda Hall can be found at www.lindahall.org/events/webcasts.shtml. Click on “Paul D. Bartlett Sr. Lecture” for Huth’s presentation.

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to levings@kcstar.com.

Find your way

Some insights gathered from Harvard professor John Huth’s delivery of the library’s Paul D. Bartlett Sr. Lecture:

A mile comes from the 1,000 paces as marched by Roman legionnaires, but remember that a true pace means a step using each leg once.

At Kansas City’s latitude (39 degrees north), a helpful directional star to identify is Vega, one of the brightest, which faithfully passes directly overhead.

Furlong, 220 yards, is a Saxon word for the length of an ox-plowed furrow before the beast becomes too tired to continue.

When stuck under cloudy skies, Vikings used quartz-like sunstones to detect polarization of sunlight and find Vega.

That strange dog watering your yard is not so much marking territory as instinctively leaving a scent beacon. Huth does not recommend this, as our olfactory powers, while helpful in finding a bakery, are not as developed as a dog’s.

Inuit people read snow drifts and Sahara travelers read dunes left by dominant winds to figure direction.

Zephyrus was the Greek’s gentle west wind, the fructifying messenger of spring.

Midnight comes from the Norse “midnaetti.”

We start with “route knowledge” and expand to “survey knowledge.” The brains of mammals, birds and fish are survey wired for shortcuts; bees and ants are not.

Knowing which direction to face Mecca for prayers was an impetus to developing longitude and latitude.

Ancient Pacific islanders navigated in part by reading the patterns (refractions) of waves disturbed by unseen islands and bird flight. Eventually they made the 2,500-mile jump to the Hawaiian Islands. By the time the Europeans showed up, their skills had atrophied.

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