Modern Navigators Are Unerring, But Also Numb To The Universe

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When I was a callow lad, private pilot ground school was interactive. It was interactive not in the sense of the Pavlovian clicking of choices on a webpage, but of having a human instructor who actually talked and answered questions. Chalk was a thing then.

One of the instructors must have been an old school oceanic navigator because during the section on basic navigation, he produced and demonstrated a sextant of the sort used by World War II-era crews to find their way across the Pacific. I remember two things about this instrument. It had a bubble and my first attempt at reducing position with it put us in Indiana, 600 miles away from where in fact we were in North Carolina.

This effort was a mere curiosity by an engaged teacher for celestial navigation, was not then a part of pilot training and half a century later, many people don’t even know what it is. Thank GPS for that, at least in part. But that instructor left with me a lifelong fascination with celestial navigation and that led me to Sextant: A Young Man's Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World's Oceans, by David Ogilvy Barrie. It’s not a new work, but as a $2 Kindle edition, I couldn’t resist.

The book deals with ocean navigation and its history through the development of various instruments leading to the first sextants around 1759 or so. These instruments, along with the shipboard chronometer, revolutionized the art of navigation at sea, skills that would persist into the air age in the interim between routine transoceanic steamship travel and the jet age. Indeed, jet airliners carried sextant ports well into the era of Doppler nav, CONSOL, Loran and inertial navigation, although they were hardly more useful than a vestigial organ by then.   

In reading Barrie’s book, it’s almost shocking to realize how much modern navigation has isolated us from the most rudimentary understanding of the physical world. He describes being at sea on clear, moonless nights and seeing the vast field of stars scroll by not as anonymous winking points of light but as a half dome of guideposts as familiar as the mailbox at the end of your driveway. And of recognizing Jupiter’s rise above the horizon and knowing that the brilliant Galileo Galilei devised the means to observe its moons, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede, to determine longitude on Earth a century before the chronometer was even thought of. And of looking at Polaris, without benefit of sextant, and knowing what 43 degrees North just looks like.

Modern city life has all but erased the sight of a deep star field, much less any knowledge of its composition. If you live in the Midwest or West, stop your car on a dark remote road and you’ll know the difference. Some years ago, I went on a press tour of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and stood on the LSO platform facing aft, with lights doused as we waited for the jets inbound from Oceana to enter the pattern for night quals. The sky was stunningly bright and complex but I couldn’t resurrect enough my college astronomy to orient myself with confidence before it clouded up and got black dark.

With GPS in every phone, watch and camera, the urge to understand the sky is ever more suppressed. It’s not that modern navigation requires little skill, it requires no skill. A celestial navigator herding a C-54 across the Pacific the year I was born would have done a flurry of sightings to confirm that yes, the headwind actually is 105 knots. Today, the GPS puts the wind in an unblinking, unerring data field that might merit a comment by the skipper to the FO between sips of coffee, but probably not even that.

I’m not given to the plaintive sentiment of the Luddite decrying what used to be nor would I ever suggest that it ought to be again. I’m a dedicated child of the modern age and I don’t long to ride around in a 56 Chevy because I used to own one. Give me digital variable-rate suspension and an ECU any day. GPS, too.

Modern GPS navigation is the inverse analog of celestial navigation. The former is all about precise times and ranges, the latter about precise angles and times measured with an instrument and an educated eyeball. With a $400 smartphone, you can navigate yourself across 3600 miles of the tractless Pacific with ease, if you can keep it charged. Tossed off the HMS Bounty, William Bligh did the same distance with a sextant, no almanacs and only the knowledge of admiralty charts locked in his memory. Today, most of us can’t find the next exit without our little electronic buddies.

It’s a good thing that anyone can do it now with the mere push of a few buttons and achieve accuracy Bligh couldn’t have dreamed of. The guidance is not only accurate, but unerring and nearly as reliable as the sun and stars the ancients counted on. And that makes the modern human navigator more accurate, more reliable and utterly unerring. But also quite a bit disconnected and just not quite as smart. Maybe 100 years from now, if we haven’t reduced the planet to an ash-blown cinder, some writer will long for the day when the GPS actually had buttons rather a direct neuron link to the brain.

WALL-E, here we come.