M. R. O’Connor’s book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World came out in April from St. Martin’s Press. Not coincidentally, she’s published a couple of pieces on the subject of that book, both of which focus on humans’ ability to pay attention to their surroundings, and the effect that relying on GPS directions might have on that ability. In a piece for Undark, O’Connor argues that “our unshakeable trust in GPS,” which traces itself back through hundreds of years of believing in the infallibility of maps, gets us lost because we’re relying on the device rather than our senses. Her piece for the Washington Post focuses on the role of the hippocampus in navigation and spatial awareness, and the need to exercise that part of the brain.
The flurry of articles defending paper maps continues, and it can be tricky to separate them from one another: some are in the context of the Standfords store move; others are reprints of Meredith Broussard’s Conversation piece. But Sidney Stevens’s essay for Mother Nature Network is its own thing. It acknowledges both the downsides of paper maps (they get damaged and outdated) and the advantages of digital maps (“GPS”) before looking at the advantages of paper maps. It’s well-researched and well-considered.
Paper maps continue to find their defenders. The latest is Meredith Broussard, author of Artificial Unintelligence. In a piece for The Conversation, she applies her argument against what she calls “technochauvinism”—the idea that the digital and the technological are always better—to mapmaking. “Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good,” she writes, “but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.” Errors on paper maps are more forgivable because, she argues, we recognize that paper maps fall out of date.
She also distinguishes between surface and deep knowledge, and associates digital maps with the former and paper maps with the latter, but there’s a risk of getting cause and effect spun around. “A 2013 study showed that, as a person’s geographic skill increases, so does their preference for paper maps,” she writes; but it doesn’t follow that paper maps lead to geographic skill. Those with poor map-reading abilities may do the bare minimum required to navigate, and nowadays that means using your phone. [WMS]
The World Magnetic Model—the standard model of the Earth’s magnetic field and a crucial part of modern navigation systems—was last updated in 2015. That update was supposed to last until 2020, but problems with the model started within a year of the last update. As Nature reports, a geomagnetic pulse under South America in 2016 made the magnetic field “lurch”:
By early 2018, the World Magnetic Model was in trouble. Researchers from NOAA and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh had been doing their annual check of how well the model was capturing all the variations in Earth’s magnetic field. They realized that it was so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors.
As a result, the WMM is being updated a year early—this month, in fact, though the U.S. government shutdown is pushing back the release of the updated model.
CNet’s Kent German asks people to stop tech-shaming over old phones and paper maps, though I’m not exactly sure who exactly does this (it’s not like he provides any examples). Anyway, one example he does use to bolster his argument is the time a paper map saved him from getting lost in France when his rental car’s GPS didn’t have updated maps; the graft to the larger argument in favour of not being so quick to abandon old tech in favour of the latest and greatest does leave some visible seams. (He also drags the post office into the argument. It’s Luddite potpourri.) [MAPS-L]
The argument for paper maps is getting ever more insistent, even shrill, but it seems to me to be mainly coming from the tech side of things. My impression is that the people who rely too much on mobile maps haven’t lost the ability to read maps; they never had it in the first place.
Popular Mechanics: “Even in 2019, there are good reasons to own a paper map, whether it’s the kind you can grab at the gas station or a sturdy road atlas […] that lives in your car.” This is a listicle, so six reasons are given, some of which are absolute rubbish: paper maps aren’t “nearly flawless” in terms of accuracy (they do go out of date), and they’re not inherently more comparative (checking vs. online maps) than checking one online map against another (e.g. Google vs. Apple vs. OpenStreetMap). Valid points about reliability and being able to plot out your own routes, though. [CCA]
How does navigation work on a flat world? Admittedly this is not a question that comes up outside flat earth societies, at least not in the real world, but fantasy worlds aren’t always spherical. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for example, started off as a flat world, but became round during a cataclysmic event. Before that, the Númenóreans (Aragorn’s ancestors, for those not totally up on their Tolkien lore) were held to be the greatest seafarers in the world: “mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished,” as The Silmarillion puts it. The problem is, a flat earth has implications for navigation: many known methods simply wouldn’t work.
In a piece I wrote for Tor.com, “The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea: On Númenórean Navigation,” I try to puzzle out how they could have navigated the oceans of a flat world. I come up with a solution or two, within the limitations of my math abilities. (I’m sure readers who have more math than I do will be able to come up with something better.) It assumes a certain familiarity with Tolkien’s works, and it draws rather heavily on John Edward Huth’s Lost Art of Finding Our Way, which I reviewed here, not at all coincidentally, last month.
It’s become a commonplace that modern technology has eroded our ability to navigate: that relying on GPS and smartphones is destroying our brains’ abilities to form cognitive maps and that we’d be utterly lost without them.1 I’m not sure I subscribe to that point of view: plenty of people have been getting themselves lost for generations; relying on an iPhone to get home is not much different from nervously having to follow someone’s scribbled directions without really knowing where you’re going.
For my part, I can’t get lost. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me to get lost: that has, in fact, been known to happen. I mean that I can’t allow myself not to know where I am under any circumstances. I’ve got a pretty good cognitive map, but if I’m in a strange city without a map of said city, I’m deeply uncomfortable if not upset; provide me with a map to get my bearings with and I’m immediately at ease. In my case, having an iPhone—with multiple map applications—means I don’t have to get to the nearest map outlet as soon as freaking possible. It’s not, in other words, an either-or situation.
John Edward Huth is firmly in the former camp. He’s a particle physicist at Harvard who’s worked on the Higgs boson who for years has been running an interesting side gig: he teaches a course on what he has called “primitive navigation”—the ancient means of navigating the world that existed prior to the advent of some later technology. The course, and the accompanying book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2013), are an exercise in recapturing those methods.
Developmental topographic disorientation is a neurological disorder that prevents people from making cognitive maps. People suffering from DTD literally get lost in familiar surroundings: their home, to and from work. As someone who literally cannot get lost, I have a hard time imagining what that could possibly be like. Enter The Woman Who Gets Lost Every Day, a short film about Sharon Roseman, a woman with DTD who shares how she experiences and navigates the world in her own words. [The Atlantic]
There are some illustrations that are a great help in understanding concepts and tools whose use is not immediately obvious, but, as the subtitle suggests, this is not a book that goes into much depth. At only 144 pages—20 percent of which is taken up by front matter, glossary and index—it can only give the barest of introductions to the subject. That can be maddening for the reader, particularly when its coverage is so uneven: there’s a fair bit on the tools and techniques used during the age of sail, but only a paragraph on LORAN and Loran-C, for example. Another frustration is Bennett’s extremely discursive style, as though he were giving a posh invited lecture; I kept feeling that more could have been included had his prose been tightened up.
All the same, there’s value in a book that styles itself, modestly, as an introduction. An introduction is where you begin. It’s the first step, not the finish line. It sets out the parameters of the field and gives you just enough to know what’s out there. For someone like me, it tells me where the gaps are in my knowledge. To paraphrase someone, it lets you know what you do not know. It tells you where to go next: the most useful part of the book may well be its “Further Reading” section; you just need the preceding 116 pages of text to know how to use it.
And for all my concerns about brevity and prose, it’s a good deal more accessible, and easier to read, than the equivalent Wikipedia page—and it went through an editorial process, too. And while it’s not free, it’s very modestly priced. So I have no regrets about buying it.
Eurasian reed warblers don’t need no stinkin’ marine chronometers. A new study suggests that the migratory birds make use of magnetic declination to determine longitude, “at least under some circumstances under clear skies. Experienced migrants tested during autumn migration in Rybachy, Russia, were exposed to an 8.5° change in declination while all other cues remained unchanged. This corresponds to a virtual magnetic displacement to Scotland if and only if magnetic declination is a part of their map. The adult migrants responded by changing their heading by 151° from WSW to ESE, consistent with compensation for the virtual magnetic displacement.”
Not, it would seem, accurate enough for the species to earn a chunk of the Longitude Prize, and it’s not like John Harrison should have been messing about with birds instead of clocks, but interesting all the same. [GeoLounge]
An artifact recovered in 2014 from the wreck of one of Vasco da Gama’s exploring ships, the Esmerelda, which sank in the Indian Ocean 1503, was believed to be an astrolabe, a navigation tool used to measure the inclination of celestial objects, but the 17.5-cm bronze disc appeared to lack any navigational markings. Scanning and 3D imaging the object at the University of Warwick revealed etches separated by five degrees along the edge, confirming that it was, in fact, an astrolabe. It’s dated to between 1495 and 1500, roughly, which makes it the oldest known astrolabe still in existence. BBC News. [Tony Campbell]