Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Navigating...the old way

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

An NPR program on February 22 on teaching naval cadets how to use the sextant reminded me of a course taught by Harvard particle physicist John Huth.

Huth has taught "Science of the Physical Universe: Primitive Navigation" since 2007.  He makes use of the old ways, the analogue methods using stars, sun, tides, weather and wind.  They are based in a variety of cultures and are used for both short-distance and long-distance navigation.

In Finding the Way Back, New Yorker writer M. R. O'Conner describes the course and explores some of the neurological connections.  In the end, this course is about finding one's place in the world.

Huth starts his course with a quiz very reminiscent of but considerably shorter and less encompassing than this interrogation first published in the CoEvolution Quarterly, a version of which may be found here.  "Where You At?" is a bioregional quiz and not as locally focused as the noticing kind of question Huth is likely to ask at the beginning of the course, e.g., "Which way was the wind blowing before class?"

Huth has written a book knowing where you are, methods used for centuries, The Lost Art of Finding our Way.  At this link is a short video about the book and finding one's way.  Huth, a kayacker, was haunted by the loss of two kayackers in a dense Nantucket fog.  This, I think, was the motivation for this course.

And about the sextant and midshipmen.

The Naval Academy is not the only place where celestial navigation is being taught. Indeed, I doubt that any liberal arts institution shares Harvard's record. Frances W. Wright taught celestial navigation at Harvard.  When she died she left an endowment to ensure the continuation of this course. In 2004, the course had been offered for 107 years.

Some of the endowment is used to supply the sextants that students use. There is a feature article in the Harvard Crimson about the course.  According to the Harvard Website Locator it is still being offered.

This poem by Robinson Jeffers is about the perilous passage of fishing boats in a fog. A sample:

"Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing boats, trailing each other/ Following the cliff for guidance/ Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog/ And the foam on the shore granite."

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