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Lewis and Clark: They Shoulda Brought Along a GPS (and maybe some iPods)

March 11, 2006

From East Coast to West, public radio listeners are tuning in to a vibrant scholarly series about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The 13-part series, titled  Unfinished Journey: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, is a joint production of Lewis & Clark College and Oregon Public Broadcasting, with major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Actor Peter Coyote and humanities scholar in residence Clay Jenkinson host each hourlong episode and present fresh perspectives on the motives, accomplishments, and tragedies of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The following essay, written by Stephen Tufte, associate professor of physics at Lewis & Clark, is one of the featured pieces in the radio series. To learn when the series airs in your area, contact your local public radio station.

What were they thinking? When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their difficult journey into terra incognita, they really should have brought along a hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) unit.

Thomas Jefferson had strong scientific and political motivations for instructing Lewis and Clark to map the West–he wanted to know not just what was out there, but also where it was.

Consider what Lewis and Clark had to go through to determine their latitude and longitude coordinates as they crossed the continent sans GPS. Before they left, they had to receive extensive training in celestial navigation by the world’s experts. They had to purchase and transport many bulky, delicate, and expensive instruments. In the field and under harsh conditions, they had to spend valuable time making many painstaking celestial observations. They had to carry multiple volumes of tables and formulae and apply complex calculations to their observations.

In the end, the coordinates they got for their trek across the country were not very accurate and were typically off by 30 miles. And for the most part, they didn’t even get longitudes at all.

Their mapping efforts would have been much simpler and easier, and their results far more accurate, if they had simply brought along a GPS unit. These devices are about the size of a calculator and include a “Set Waypoint” button that tells you your precise location within meters. GPS units do this by communicating via radio waves with a constellation of 24 special-purpose satellites in orbit around the Earth.

Thanks to Captain Vancouver, the coordinates of Lewis and Clark’s destination were known and they could have used the feature of the GPS unit that displays a little arrow to identify the correct direction of travel and the number of miles left to go. The instructions from Thomas Jefferson really could have been a lot less wordy: “Go forth and push the ‘Set Waypoint’ button at all remarkable points. Oh, what the heck, just turn the ‘Track Course’ feature on.”

Come to think of it, the explorers also should have brought a cell phone. Imagine the conversation when Captain Lewis checks in with President Jefferson: “Hello Tom? This is Meri. Yes, yes, we’re getting our coordinates–this GPS is great! I … what? I went over my minutes limit again?”

Better yet, let’s make it a camera phone with e-mail so they could send pictures of the buffalo back to Jefferson. It’s hard for us to imagine that no message in their time ever traveled faster than a horse. Of course, there would be problems. I can just hear Clark saying, “Lewis, would you stop playing Tetris on that darn phone? There’s a bear attacking the men!” 

You know, I think iPods would have made ideal presents for the Indians.

People associate the word “exploration” with history and characters like Magellan, Captain Cook, and Lewis and Clark, but we continue to explore uncharted territories today as we look out into the depths of outer space. To get an idea of how technology has influenced exploration, consider modern astronomy.

From my living room couch, with tea in hand, I can use my laptop computer to operate a telescope that sits on a remote mountaintop. Light from an exploding star that originated before the dinosaurs lived passes through my telescope, strikes my electronic camera, and appears as an image on my computer screen. In the safety and warmth of my home, with Bach’s Goldberg Variations playing quietly, I should feel guilty calling myself an explorer!

But where is the romance of it? Shouldn’t I be hungry and shivering, scratching mosquito bites, and struggling to keep my tent up in the wind? What of the sensation of cold rain on my skin, the sting of sweat falling in my eye, or the smell of lilacs floating on the breeze?

But despite the fact that these interstellar realms are revealed to my imagination after being filtered though many layers of abstraction, they are nonetheless beautiful. Our galaxy is filled with the most unlikely things, often wild to the point of bombastic, fantastically remote and of unimaginable sizes. These modern astronomical discoveries are every bit as new and real, thrilling and strange as what Lewis and Clark experienced 200 years ago.

Perhaps in 200 more years, GPS will stand for Galactic Positioning System.

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