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Science of Travel

Updated: Apr 28, 2019

Navigation is defined as the science of getting from one place to another. So navigation is a significant aspect to travel. Without navigation you don’t get there. When navigation goes wrong, you get lost and have to ask for instructions.

Some time ago I learned that people give instructions to reach a destination in one of two ways. It was fascinating and I have observed it many times since. One group draws a map or a map-like sketch, and gives you a 2-dimensional view of where to go. The other group draws up a list of land marks with details of what to do next at each landmark; much like a recipe.

Each method is unrelated to intelligence or one’s ability to navigate. Each method is also presumably only useful if the other person thinks in the same way. If someone cannot read a map very well, drawing a map probably does not help. Similarly a list that looks like: go until you see a red roofed house, turn right, then continue until you cross a bridge, then turn left at the telephone box and its the second house on the left. The problem with this is that there may be other red roofed houses or bridges or telephone boxes that you are unaware of and which could misdirect the lost person.

Today with GPS, and route following apps, and other technologies, this problem is pretty much averted because the method with these is a third one that essentially works by telling you to keep going forward until I tell you to do something different.

There are some wonderful cultures, wonderful people, in Taiwan for instance, where if someone is lost they will actually take you to your destination. Follow me and I will see you safely to your destination.

One amazing method of giving direction instructions we are all familiar with is how bees dance a special code to tell other bees where they have found nectar. The dance describes the orientation and distance. It would be funny if we did that. Someone asks how to get to the post office and you suddenly start a rap dance and a moon walk.

Animals have to navigate to get from one place to another just like humans have to, and very few of them can draw maps or own a smart phone, so they use other methods, some of them absolutely brilliant.

Some animals, from birds like starlings to insects like ants can travel by the sun. Different methods of using the sun are used, from the sun’s location to the orientation of its polarised light. Humans do not detect polarisation, so that is a method impossible for us.

Just like in a movie where someone leaves a string or a series of items behind them so they can find the way back, some insects do the same thing, laying down a scent trail for them to find their way back but also for others to be able to follow them. That is useful if a rich lode is found for instance and many insects are required to carry it back. Funny that the word lode is in the word lodestone, which is a magnetic mineral used in the earliest compasses. Compasses were the first technology to allow ships to travel out of sight of the coastline.

Travelling along a landmark like a coast line is a type of navigation called dead reckoning, which is simple even if it can accumulate errors. For instance a moth travels by keeping the moon off to one side. Since the moon is so far away, it is like a fixed beacon in the sky no matter how you turn, so it is a pretty good fixed landmark. The problem here is when a moth mistakes a room light for the moon, and in trying to keep it off to say the left at all times, flies in a circle around it.

Some animals actually detect the earth’s magnetic field. Several species of bats and turtles do this but even one celled organisms can sometimes do it. Iron particles can often be detected in those animals so they may use magnetism, and it has been suggested that there are magnetite (a magnetic form of iron) in human brains. But not all. So that might explain why some people have a strong sense of direction, and some end up in the boondocks, or in Australia out past the Black Stump.

What ever method you use to navigate, or to help someone who is lost, the most important thing is to travel. In the animal world there would be no honey, no whale matings, no more sea turtles, and no funny moth flights to wonder at, and for us we would miss out on the wonderful variety of cultures, foods, languages, art, music, architecture, dance, landscapes, and new friends that only come from navigating widely through this life.

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