The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

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by John Edward Huth
     
 

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Long before GPS and Google Earth, humans traveled vast distances using environmental clues and simple instruments. What else is lost when technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way? Illustrated with 200 drawings, this narrative—part treatise, part travelogue, and part navigational history—brings our own world into sharper view.See more details below

Overview

Long before GPS and Google Earth, humans traveled vast distances using environmental clues and simple instruments. What else is lost when technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way? Illustrated with 200 drawings, this narrative—part treatise, part travelogue, and part navigational history—brings our own world into sharper view.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Dirda
…[Huth] write[s] plainly and gracefully…The Lost Art of Finding Our Way is…a learned and encyclopedic grab bag, packed with information drawn from study and Huth's own experience.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Peter Monaghan
Lamenting the loss of navigational skills, [Huth] 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.
Nature
Humanity's lust for exploring terra incognita shaped and tested our prodigious capacity for mental mapping. Now, with the advent of the Global Positioning System, wayfaring skills are on the wane. Physicist John Edward Huth turns explorer in this rich, wide-ranging and lucidly illustrated primer on how to find yourself in the middle of somewhere. Huth's prescription for navigating fog, darkness, open ocean, thick forests or unknown terrain rests first on harnessing compass, Sun and stars; then on the subtleties of weather forecasting and decoding markers such as the wind, waves and tides.
Literary Review - Anthony Sattin

Early humans learned to navigate on land and sea by watching the world around them...Huth recovers some of this history by looking at Norse legends, the records of Arab traders moving across the Indian Ocean and Pacific Islanders...Huth's subject is fascinating...We have lost many of our innate abilities on the way to this technologically

advanced moment in time. But John Edward Huth believes, and his book shows, that some of what was lost can still be found. We just need to relearn how to read the signs.

The Times - Iain Finlayson
Just as we are said to have abandoned the art of memory when we started writing things down, so Huth says that we have lost our instinct for knowing how to get from here to there. Before the scientific revolution we had the ability to interpret environmental information that enabled us to navigate long distances. Huth surveys Pacific Islanders, medieval Arab traders, Vikings and early Western European travellers before examining techniques for navigators to look to the stars for astronomical beacons, as well as to the weather and the water.
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
One of the repeated themes of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way is that even the most confused of us can improve our navigational understanding by paying closer attention to the world around us...A learned and encyclopedic grab bag, packed with information drawn from study and Huth's own experience.
Barnes & Noble Review - Peter Lewis
[An] irresistible book...Huth has an affable, smart tone, as welcoming as a Billy Collins poem. His knowledge of way-finding and its history is rangy and detailed, but his enthusiasm never flickers, lifting the educational factor to higher ground: rewarding, artful, ably conveying what can be some fairly abstruse material, the finer points of navigation being among them. There are, by the way, many, many fine points regarding navigation, and if Huth gets a bit windy in pointing them out, well, let the wind blow. It's refreshing.
Times Higher Education - Robert J. Mayhew
[Huth's] exuberance shines through: he makes gadgets in his garage and narrates adventures at sea. Huth's is a book filled with joy about what we might term the everyday mathematics of living on the Earth...Huth is concerned that we have become desensitized to our physical environment because of technology such as smartphones and global positioning systems, which do the work of plotting and routefinding for us. To live in what Huth dubs 'the bubble' created by such devices is to lose not only our wonder at the world but also a bundle of precious survival skills. To be able to find our way in the world is to reconnect with its value in a virtuous spiral of environmental awareness.
Science - Deirdre Lockwood
The book offers a clear, comprehensive, and entertaining short course in navigation that draws on Earth science, history, anthropology, neuroscience, archaeology, and linguistics. It provides both a primer on navigational techniques and a tour through 'the historical evolution of way finding.' Huth punctuates instruction on celestial navigation and reading wind, weather, and currents with engaging stories and images. These are derived from sources as varied as the oral histories of Pacific Islanders and Inuit hunters, Homer's Odyssey, Icelandic sagas, navigational tables from the medieval Islamic world, and contemporary news reports and sailing accounts.
Wired - Greg Miller
It's a great reference, filled with personal and historical anecdotes and fascinating bits of physics, astronomy, oceanography, and meteorology. And that's one of Huth's central points: To find your way in a world without maps, you can't rely on any single cue--you need to make the best of whatever combination of cues is available to you...With a little study, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way could be your guide to reconnecting with the navigational aids in the world around you.
The Guardian - Arthur Musgrave
Full of wisdom that is fast disappearing in an age of satnav and GPS.
Times Literary Supplement - Thomas Meaney
John Huth’s The Lost Art of Finding Our Way is a book for anyone who’s ever cursed themselves for not being able to get home by way of the stars and winds. Or for anyone who wants to learn how the Vikings and others once managed to.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674074835
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
05/15/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
636,341
File size:
30 MB
Note:
This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

John Edward Huth is Donner Professor of Science in the Physics Department at Harvard University.

More from this Author

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Four: Dead Reckoning



If you were on a desert island, how could you measure distances and communicate these to others? Readily available measures are on our body and in the environment. In ancient Egypt short measures were based on finger, hand, and arm lengths. The ancient Egyptian cubit is the length of the forearm. Longer units of distance were based on travel. The word mile comes from the Latin phrase mille pacem, which means “a thousand paces”. Roman legionnaires kept track of the distance traveled by counting paces. A pace is the distance you cover when the same foot (left or right) hits the ground. Two steps – left then right - equal one pace.

This practice of counting paces isn’t limited to humans. At least one species of ant navigates by counting paces. Harald Wulf studied ant habits by gluing tiny stilts onto their legs or cutting off sections of their legs to change the length of their paces. In Wulf’s study the distance the desert ants (Cataglyphis) traveled was directly related to how many paces they took. Ants with stilts would walk past a target and ants with shortened legs would come up short in a way that was consistent with pace counting.

Another natural measure is based on travel time. If you were giving directions to a friend driving a car, you might say something like “You stay on the interstate for two hours and take exit twenty-seven.” This assumes that everyone travels at the same speed, but it is usually clear from the context how fast your friend moves. Distance traveled (miles) is speed (miles per hour), times time, (hours).

The hour was and is one of the most widely used units of time. It has its origins in the ancient Egyptian use of rising stars to reckon the time of night. They used 36 bright stars in all, which would rise just before the sun in turn at different times of the year. The passage of one night was associated with the passage of 12 of these bright stars giving rise to the night being divided into 12 hours. The day was likewise divided into 12 units. This scheme, dating from roughly the fifth century BC, became widely adopted, but it was far from universal. Medieval Saxons reckoned the length of day in tides, with eight tides in one day.

Three miles per hour was, and is, a good reference for human-powered travel. This is how fast most people walk on level ground, how fast a person can row a boat, and how fast an old sailboat can move on water. It is far from universal. You could be running or limping, but it is a reliable standard shared among travelers and widely understood. If you convert this speed with an hour into a distance, it is three miles. In ancient Persian and Arab cultures, a parasang or farsakh was a unit based on this same combination of speed and time. The length of a league is close to the farsakh and is also based on the distance covered by a person in an hour. Longer distances can be reckoned in how many days or lunar months elapse over the course of a journey. Native Americans used these lengths of time as standards. A marhalah is a day’s journey in medieval Islamic reckoning and is equal to roughly eight farsakhs (24 miles), or eight hours of travel.

These are still viable measures. If GPS devices and odometers vanished overnight we could fall back on human measures instantly. When I tested a group of 30 students, they took 980 paces per mile, which is very close to the one thousand originating from soldiers in ancient Rome! They also averaged a walking speed of 3 miles per hour, so the concepts of a mile, farsakh, and league are true to their origins.

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