- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
On my recent foray to New York City, I finished reading John Edward Huth’s The Lost Art of Finding Our Way. It is best described as an anthropological history of navigation, written by a Harvard physicist.
In his chapter on waves, he writes that, “there is almost a boundless amount of information hidden in plain view, if only the meaning can be deciphered.” In essence, he argues that our ancestors often understood their world better than we do ours. Today, he notes, many of us have our heads locked inside two-foot bubbles that only communicate with other humans, most of them very similar to us. For example, Eskimos, even when fogbound, know to look for the patterns winter winds carve in the snow. If the prevailing winds are from the west, the lines are likely to point on a north-south axis. Similarly, Pacific Islanders sailing in the dark used to know to look into the ocean waters for the phosphorescent trails left by large predatory fish, who swim toward islands at night.
There also are lots of tidbits that I enjoyed. For example, I didn’t know that Polaris, the North Star, is far more important than it was several thousand years ago. In the time of Homer, Huth writes, “Polaris was just a minor star that was 11 degrees away from the Pole and inconsequential. There are few if any references to Polaris in antiquity.”
More broadly, the use of stars in navigation did not come into its own, at least in the West, until fairly recently. “A full realization of the power of celestial navigation didn’t emerge until the latter half of the 18th century,” he writes. Nautical twilight was the most important half-hour of the day for a ship at sea because that was when the brighter stars began to emerge while the horizon was still apparent, making it possible for a navigator to compare his dead reckoning calculations against his celestial fixes, which in turn would tell him how much current and leeway were affecting his vessel’s movement.
He also offhandedly notes that Oklahoma is North America’s “tornado alley” because that is where the dry, cool continental air mass tangles with the warm, wet maritime air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico.
Huth is a refreshingly clear writer. I love maps and charts. Just yesterday I sat down with a nautical chart and for half an hour read it like it was a newspaper. I mention this because I see “MLLW” on nautical charts all the time, and I knew that those letters stand for “mean lower low water,” but until I read his explanation I didn’t understand what it meant and how it differed from the “lowest astronomical tide” used on British charts.
What does all this have to do with defense or foreign policy? I am not sure, but I feel it belongs here in this blog because it is about how we orient ourselves to the world around us. And writing about it is more fun that mourning the erosion of the First and Fourth Amendments.