Newportm’s photo of a recreation of a Mau Piailug star-compass depicted with shells on sand, with Satawalese (See Trukic languages) text labels, as described by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, via Wikimedia Commons.
Newportm’s photo of a recreation of a Mau Piailug star-compass depicted with shells on sand, with Satawalese (See Trukic languages) text labels, as described by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Stars That Guide Us, with Nainoa Thompson

A photograph of a recreation of the star compass of Mau Piailug depicted with shells on sand, with Satawalese (See Trukic languages) text labels, as described by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. By Newportm [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.

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About This Episode

In the nascent days of navigation there was only one way to know where you were going – by letting nature guide you. On this episode of StarTalk Radio, Neil deGrasse Tyson sits down with master navigator Nainoa Thompson, comic co-host Maeve Higgins, and navigation expert Frank Reed to discover more about celestial navigation. Nainoa has sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, around 2,400 miles, in Hōkūleʻa, a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe, devoid of any modern technology. Find out how he uses the stars and many other factors of nature including the sun, the ocean, and seabirds to help him find his way. Nainoa tells us what the easiest part of navigation is and explains how he over-prepared for his first voyage. Learn all about sextants and why the Apollo space missions carried sextants aboard their spacecraft. Frank explains why people bother to do this type of navigation in modern times even though it’s outdated. You’ll hear about the hit Disney film Moana as we discuss what they got right about navigation. Author Dava Sobel stops by to discuss the “longitude problem” – a challenge that plagued 18th century sailors and their voyages – and how it was eventually solved thanks to a competition and a big reward. Primatologist and StarTalk All-Stars host Natalia Reagan also stops by to help us understand that our urge to explore has been with us since we could stand upright. We also examine the extremely difficult situations that occur with celestial navigation, like what do you do when the sun is up? How do you deal with the longitude problem? How do you keep everything straight in your head? Maeve helps us answer some fan-submitted Cosmic Queries about navigation at the speed of light, how the spacecraft Voyager navigated, and what happens if you’re lost in space…could you find your way back to Earth? Frank also shares the odd method European sailors would use in order to find out if they were close to the English Channel. All that, plus, we learn why “wayfinding” is a better word than navigation and Neil sends us off to sea with thoughts from the cosmic perspective. 

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: The Stars That Guide Us, with Nainoa Thompson.

In This Episode

  • Host

    Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    Astrophysicist
  • Co-Host

    Maeve Higgins

    Maeve Higgins
    Comedian
  • Guest

    Nainoa Thompson

    Nainoa Thompson
    Master Navigator, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society
  • Guest

    Frank Reed

    Frank Reed
    Expert in Celestial Navigation
  • Guest

    Dava Sobel

    Dava Sobel
    Author of Longitude and The Glass Universe: How The Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
  • Guest

    Natalia Reagan

    Natalia Reagan
    All-Stars Host, Primatologist, Comedian, Boas Network CCO

Music in This Episode

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Music in This Episode