Not all of us would, I suspect, while lying blissfully on a Jamaican beach at sunset, choose that moment to spring to our feet to demonstrate the curvature of the Earth. The point here is that the Earth being a globe, the Sun will sink below the horizon at one moment from ground level for the sunbather, but for someone standing next to them, the Sun will still be above the horizon due to the elevation of their body height. John Edward Huth has performed just this feat in The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, noting that if you also know your height and the difference between the two moments when the Sun sets, you can calculate the radius of the Earth, concluding “it’s not terribly accurate, but it’s a fun trick”. This is just one of many moments peppering The Lost Art of Finding Our Way where the author’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.
What, exactly, then is Huth’s ambition? At the mundane level, he wants to showcase the diverse ways in which human beings can find their location on land and by sea, from using maps and compasses with which we may be familiar, to scanning wave patterns and constellations, the fare of more hardened travellers. Huth is also at pains to show just how venerable are many of these locational crafts, both in the culture of European antiquity and in the navigational arts of the Pacific Islanders. As a result, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way straddles a number of generic categories, being part history, part mathematics and part “how to” manual. Taken in the round, it amounts to a vade mecum or miscellany of the wayfinding arts wherein all readers will find things they deem commonplace and others they find revelatory in almost equal measure.
Lying behind this detail is a broader ambition. Huth is concerned that we have become desensitised 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.
Why does all this matter? Return to Huth’s Jamaican beach. This, the simplest of many bodily ways in which The Lost Art of Finding Our Way shows that we can demonstrate that the Earth is round, is, of course, something that would not be self-evident to most denizens of Huth’s “bubble” – even though almost all of them would know propositionally that the Earth is spherical and would mock the alleged irrationalism of past societies for thinking it flat. And yet, here, Huth gives us pause for thought. The path-finders in past cultures could actually demonstrate that the Earth was not flat and used such skills as basic parts of their armoury of survival skills.
One comes away from reading this book with the nagging sense that if any era is to be convicted of irrationalism in its environmental awareness, it must be ours, not that of our predecessors. If their horizons were limited, at least they knew that they were curved. Perhaps, then, a bit more beach jumping at sunset would be good for us all.
The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
By John Edward Huth
Harvard University Press, 544pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780674072824 and 74811
Published 29 May 2013