CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — IN 2003, my wife and I spent a week on an island off the coast of Maine. One day I rented a recreational kayak from the woman who runs the local post office. She did not, however, have any maps or compasses.
Foolishly, I set off without them, paddling across a two-mile-wide bay with the life jacket tucked under the seat, wearing only a cotton T-shirt and shorts. I was about halfway across when a thick fog rolled in. I couldn’t see the shore.
Fighting panic, I somehow had the presence of mind to try to find my bearings from natural clues. I checked the wind direction, figuring it would act as a natural compass. It was out of the southeast. Good. Which way was the swell? Out of the southwest. Good. I could hear waves grinding against the rock-strewn beach to the northwest. When the fog obliterated all sight of land, I used these clues to guide myself to a narrow channel, and then followed the wakes of lobster buoys in the incoming tide back to safety.
Two months later, I was kayaking in Nantucket Sound on a crisp fall day, this time with a wet suit on, but still without a compass. It was early October, and water temperatures were plummeting. There was a fog bank in the distance. Having learned from my earlier, harrowing experience, I noted the wind and wave directions before departing.
As the fog rolled in, I stayed close to the shore, and anytime the fog obliterated landmarks, I knew how to turn toward land. It was a relaxing, contemplative paddle.
The next day, news broke of a huge search-and-rescue operation for two young women in kayaks who had gotten lost in the fog. The day after that, I learned that the body of one of them had been recovered. The other body was never found. They were paddling at the same time as I was, and within a half-mile of me.
I was haunted by survivor’s guilt. Why were there two such divergent outcomes to the same situation? The only answer was the simple observation of the wind direction before I left the shore.
Over the next year I buried myself in a self-imposed program to learn navigation through environmental clues. I read about the traditional navigational schemes of Polynesians, how they memorized the positions of rising and setting stars to form a natural compass. The Norse had a system of telling time and orientation based on the position of the sun, with its low arc across the sky at the latitudes of Iceland and Greenland.
I wrote flash cards to memorize the positions of major stars, and in idle moments quizzed myself on star positions. Over time, I was able to orient myself at night by stars, and during the day using shadows cast by trees. Rather than relying on weather forecasts, I could tell from the formations of clouds in the sky and wind patterns whether it would rain that day.
Acquiring these skills wasn’t a matter of armchair learning. It was a process of getting outside, observing and creating a kind of mental scaffolding to organize my observations. I’m a physicist by training, and the process also reminded me that science was about more than laboratories and calculations.
We might say that Polynesian voyagers, the Norse who sailed to North America and the Arab traders who regularly traversed the Indian Ocean were all practicing a kind of science in their eras. This is not a science as we understand it today, but the systems these navigators developed possess the science-like elements of empiricism and a framework to sort out perceptions.
In this framework, no one sign is infallible, but multiple signs create a navigational tool kit with redundancies built in. The anthropologists Richard Feinberg and Cathy Pyrek, who studied such a tool kit in the southeastern Solomon Islands, found that indigenous navigators combined information hidden in winds, waves, stars and even birds to find their way.
After a year of this endeavor, something dawned on me: the way I viewed the world had palpably changed. The sun looked different, as did the stars. While the ocean didn’t accommodate my “human” need for meaning, a different sense emerged from the wave patterns that conveyed the presence of winds, shoals, coastlines and distant storms.
Is this akin to what people describe as spiritual awakenings, or perhaps the experience of improvising music with others, in which individual notes no longer take prominence and a larger meaning emerges in a wordless communication among the performers?
Sadly, we often atomize knowledge into pieces that don’t have a home in a larger conceptual framework. When this happens, we surrender meaning to guardians of knowledge and it loses its personal value.
A number of years ago, the documentary “A Private Universe,” about how we misperceive the world around us, was filmed at Harvard’s commencement. Twenty-three faculty members, alumni and graduating seniors were asked, “Why is it warm in the summer and cold in the winter?” All but two answered incorrectly, saying the Earth was closer to the sun in the summer than in the winter (it’s actually closer in January).
Arguably, the students were drawing on fragments of what they had learned in class somewhere — didn’t Earth’s orbit form an ellipse around the sun? — instead of what they could perceive themselves, as the seasons changed.
One “correct” answer has to do with the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis with respect to its orbit. But a Neolithic farmer might cast his arm in an arc across the sky and explain that the sun was low in the winter and high in the summer. The farmer’s explanation would be perfectly correct, rooted in experience.
In the documentary you can see the sun beaming down from high in the sky, and had the students given their surroundings some thought, the answer would have been obvious. And yet for them, like many people, the cause of the seasons has been reduced to some disembodied nugget of information we’re taught in school, divorced from our daily lives.
In a way, we can create our own meanings: our own private frameworks to link events. Too often in the modern era, we rely on guardians to interpret events for us, and they’re too happy to step in and tell us what something “means.” But when we do this, we surrender the more primal empiricism that our ancestors surely possessed.
For me, the search for meaning in the wake of tragedy led in an unpredictable direction, but the end result was an enriched view of the world. I doubt this is anything new to humanity, but we’re often surprised when it happens, and should be open to the possibility.
John Huth is Codirector of the science program, Academic Ventures, at the Radcliffe Institute and Donner Professor of Science in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.