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June 2019

Book Recommendation: Hawaiki Rising

Hawaiki Rising

By Stacy Palen

On May 18, 2014, Hokule’a left Oahu for a 3-year voyage that would take her and her sister vessel, Hikianalia, around the globe. The journey covered 47,000 nautical miles with stops in 26 countries, and ended in Hawaii on June 17, 2017. The vast majority of the navigation on this journey was celestial navigation. Specifically, the celestial navigation of pre-contact Pacific Islanders. The voyage was a celebration of the revitalization of an art and a science that were nearly lost to the world.

In his book, Hawaiki Rising, Sam Low tells the story of the rediscovery of this lost art. The book reads like a mystery story with adventure chapters. Along the way, it covers the principles of the celestial sphere in a fair amount of detail.

The story begins with a very brief history of Captain Cook’s discovery of Hawai’i and the aftermath. This sets the stage for the shift in culture that caused the art of navigation to be lost and simultaneously hints at the trail of breadcrumbs that would be followed in order to rediscover this ancient art. After a brief nod to Thor Heyerdahl, whose famous voyage forms the basis of the movie Kon Tiki, the story shifts to following the “detectives” in 1968 who asked the question, “How did they do it?” By the seventh page of the main text, we are already on the trail of the answer to that question.

Two of the most interesting characters along the way are Mau Piailug, known simply as Mau, and Nainoa Thompson. Mau learned to navigate “the old way”; from oral tradition stretching back generations, and Nainoa Thompson learned from him as a young adult. Nainoa Thompson is now the President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and knows more about this method of navigation than anyone else, at this point. Not long ago, he gave a talk on the experience at Stanford, which I highly recommend. 

The astronomical content is spread throughout the book and is all related to the celestial sphere and the appearance of the sky from various locations. As such, it does not provide content that is broadly applicable across the whole course, but it does provide a fascinating motivation for learning the content in those initial few chapters. We often mention “people used to navigate this way,” but beyond talking about finding the North Star, we tend to gloss over the details.

For myself, this book gave me new ideas for how to motivate that section of the course. Many students are already somewhat familiar with these ideas from the Disney movie “Moana,” in which a young Pacific Islander girl sets out to rediscover how to navigate the oceans. The movie gets it right, which is encouraging. Students are interested to learn that a movie they loved has an application to what they are studying in class.

Students in a book group will undoubtedly stumble across the PBS documentary The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific, directed by Sam Low and Boyd Estus. The film centers on Mau Piailug, the last known navigator from the Micronesian islands, who was so instrumental to the revival of this type of navigation. In 57 minutes, the film cannot possibly cover the story, and especially the astronomy, at the level of detail of the book.

It would be interesting to try combining all these resources in one semester: First, assign students to watch Moana, or at least watch the clip of the song “We Know the Way.” Read the book throughout parts of the semester, then watch Nainoa Thompson’s talk. Finish by watching the PBS documentary. Comparing and contrasting the three different treatments of the material would allow for interesting discussions that draw on students’ competencies beyond the astronomy classroom.


Book Recommendation: Unstoppable

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 1.07.30 PM

By Stacy Palen

Perhaps I should not have been surprised to find out that many of my students see Bill Nye (the Science Guy) as a personal hero, but I was. It’s probably got something to do with the bow ties…or the lab coat…or something.

I was too early for Bill Nye, but I was young enough for Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos, and still remember the impact it had on my young brain. So I was delighted to find that my current students have someone who inspires them in the same way. I suspect that in a decade or so I will see students for whom Neil deGrasse Tyson is the person who inspired them when they were very, very young.

At any rate, Bill Nye has several books out which are broad in scope and only peripherally related to astronomy concepts. Still, if my students love Bill Nye, I’m perfectly willing to harness that in the interest of getting them to read about science, even if it’s slightly off-topic!

Of all his books, the one most closely related to the coursework is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World. This book lays out the scientific case on climate change before looking at the solutions required on both the national and global scales. Bill then dives in for a look at his own home through a friendly competition that he has going with Ed Begley Jr. for the greenest home in town. He finishes with an optimistic call to action.

Students will find here an antidote to the despair that sometimes overtakes them at the end of the chapter on atmospheres; when they have started to internalize the science of climate change but haven’t yet started to figure out what solutions look like and how to achieve them.

Students often ask me for this material, but there is little time to cover it during the astronomy course (we have an entire course in our Department about solutions that I recommend to them).

The material is at a completely accessible level for students and the public. Also included are a handful of experiments that students can do on their own, like heating up water in the microwave (not to the boiling point) to see that hot water takes up more space than cold water.

Reading and discussing or writing about this book would, I feel, satisfy general education learning objectives based around “Science and Society;” particularly if students are asked to tie the material back to the information about atmospheres that they learn when comparing Venus, Earth and Mars.

It’s an optimistic take on the subject from someone that students already admire and trust. If you decide to assign it in your class, I’ll be interested to hear about how the experiment goes!