John Huth On 'Finding Our Way'

Download Audio

Imagine a world with no GPS. No Google maps. How would you find your way?

A couple of years ago, that was exactly the problem confronting Harvard physics professor, John Huth. He was on Cranberry Island in Maine, and he decided to rent a kayak from a local outfitter.

As he paddled on, Huth started paying attention to the wind direction, the swell direction, and the sound of waves grinding against lumpy rocks on a distant beach.

Two months later, he was kayaking off Nantucket Sound — again without a compass, and again, the fog rolled in. But this time, he'd already noted the wind and wave directions before leaving shore, so he returned to land safely. Two other paddlers were not so lucky. They went missing in that same fog. Search and rescue recovered the body of one young woman, but the other was never found.

The experience stunned Huth. He says the only difference between him and the lost kayakers was the fact that he'd noted the smallest of clues nature provided. It drove home the point that our dependence on geolocating technology has, as Huth puts it, obscured a more primal sense of relating to our surroundings.

John Huth decided to change that. Over the next year, he taught himself navigation through purely environmental cues. Everything from celestial and solar navigation, to learning how to read what wind patterns and cloud formations could tell him about the coming rain. He learned about ancient cultures and navigational technologies, and what new science tells us about how the brain builds mental maps.

He's put that knowledge in a new book called "The Lost Art of Finding Our Way." Earlier this week, Huth gave Radio Boston a lesson in natural navigation, as we scrambled up rocks and rambled off-trails at the Nobscot Scout Reservation near Sudbury.


John Huth, author of "The Lost Art of Finding Our Way" and physics professor at Harvard University


The New York Times: "Acquiring these skills wasn’t a matter of armchair learning. It was a process of getting outside, observing and creating a kind of mental scaffolding to organize my observations. I’m a physicist by training, and the process also reminded me that science was about more than laboratories and calculations."

This segment aired on July 24, 2013.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live