John Huth, esteemed experimental particle physicist, member of the ATLAS Collaboration at the European Center for Nuclear Physics, and professor of Science of the Physical Universe 26: “Primitive Navigation,” has an office that’s really hard to find. After climbing three flights of stairs, walking down several long corridors, and making three rights and then a couple of lefts, I arrive at Huth’s office considerably winded. The noonday light streaming from his window casts a long shadow on the sun compass arranged at his desk. He stands and gives me a cheery handshake. “I got pretty lost on the way here,” I admit. “Maybe I should be taking your class.” He responds, laughing, that I probably should.
Fifteen Minutes: So, how did a dedicated particle physicist like you get mixed up in primitive navigation?
John Huth: Well, it was an accident. In 2003, I went kayaking off the beach by my house in Cape Cod. I didn’t have a map or compass, but I paid attention to the wind direction going out. It was a sunny day, but 30 minutes into the paddle, fog closed in. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to use the wind as a way of orienting myself and navigating back to the beach. The next day I was stopped by the harbor master, who asked me about two young women who had gone kayaking the day before recreationally, about a half a mile from my house. They had been out around the same time as me. They told their boyfriends they would be back in 10 minutes, but when 45 minutes passed a search party was sent out. A day later, they found the body of one woman, but not the other, who was presumed dead. They had gotten lost in the fog.
FM: That experience must have rattled you.
JH: It’s hard to describe survivor’s guilt. You ask, “Why me? Why did I survive and these women didn’t?” I got a little bit obsessed at that point with natural ways of finding my position. Eventually I found that I was doing something very similar to what other cultures had done, like the Polynesians and the Norse, memorizing star positions and using the wind as a natural compass. I built up a stockpile of tricks.
FM: Did you develop those tricks yourself or did you go back to history?
JH: Both. I would try things that I read the Polynesians did. Here’s a perfect example. [He points at the sun compass.] There’s a stick called a noman in the middle that casts a shadow, and the path of the shadow can help you orient yourself out at sea. So I have done orienteering races with a homemade sun compass, and it turns out I did pretty well.
FM: Have you ever had a bad experience with any of these ancient navigation tricks?
JH: They’re more reliable than a compass! They’re more intuitive. But one time I got a little turned around. I was on the Charles River and I thought I could navigate by the sun, but it was too high in the sky and I didn’t recognize where I was or which way the water was flowing. So I panicked, but then I looked at the reeds through the water, saw which way they were bending, and figured out which way the water was flowing. It’s like a puzzle. Every so often something is going to throw you, and then the game is to try and correct yourself.
FM: Today there are a plethora of apps, from Waze to Google Maps, to help people who are lost. What’s your pitch for primitive navigation?
JH: People who use nature to find their way are actually much more attuned to what’s going on around them. That’s what happened to me: All of a sudden, I began to notice the sun in the sky, the clouds to the west, and Venus setting, and it’s very enriching. It forces you to think in a different way; people tend to be more analytic as a result. Too often we are presented with information in a predigested format. The question becomes: Can you figure it out for yourself? And after a few experiences getting lost and then getting un-lost, you start to develop a certain mentality. Certain research shows that parts of the brain involved in navigation are also involved in imagining scenarios. This is just speculation on my part, but I believe navigating can help us plan for the future.
FM: But you’ll still deign to use a map now and then?
JH: Oh, yeah, but sometimes the map is wrong! And then where will you be?
FM: Have you had any students take “Primitive Navigation” and then go on to have adventures?
JH: Of course! I just heard from one student who got lost in St. Louis, saw the moon rising, and realized that he was facing East. My wife and kids even do it now.
FM: You’ve indoctrinated them?
JH: Well, pretty much [laughing]. Live with someone like me long enough, and pretty soon you catch on.
FM: Are there any other aspects of your life that are
primitive? Like your house, your diet? Your clothes?
JH: Well, I do a lot of stuff out in the woods. I’ve made a cloud chamber in my basement. I cook in the woods and can actually identify many types of edible mushrooms. I like to say that the apocalypse is my hobby.
FM: But you still take showers?
JH: [Laughing] Yes, I still take showers and buy my food at the grocery store. Mostly.