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Johnston: A sense of direction

By Adam Johnston - | Jun 12, 2024

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Adam Johnston

I carry some pride in having a sense of direction, knowing I can find my way from point A to point B based on a few coordinates. I make a point of trying to learn my way around new places, a foreign city or a backcountry path. I'm terrible at languages outside of English and have an awful time making sense of historical facts, but I'm happy to work with a compass and topographic map.

My phone and my car are trying to erode this skill by giving me turn-by-turn instructions, and I hate this. I have a disdain for being told what to do in 100 feet, much preferring constructing my own mental map with the possible paths around obstacles to get to my destination. I've reintroduced myself to a habit of making GPS-aided maps stay oriented with "north" at the top of the page, rather than turning with the relative direction of my vehicle or my stride. I'm not saying that this is the best thing to do -- watching your car on the map move in the opposite direction on the screen as you're moving in real life isn't natural -- but I appreciate having a map showing me move through the world rather than forcing the planet to spin around my own point of view. It gives me a rare perspective of where I am and where I'm headed.

We take directions for granted because we deal with them all the time, and in so many cases we're simply told what to do without needing to think about the overall system. North, south, east and west are easy to point to on our maps, and in many cases, we can find landmarks to make sense of these. There's a big lake to our west and a line of mountains to the east, and many of us literally lose our bearings in other geographies or where a city removes a wider perspective.

But these cardinal directions aren't the only way we navigate. We're often told to "turn right" at an intersection, which could be any number of directions on the planet. Two wrongs don't make a right, as they say, but three lefts can equate to the same direction as that right turn if you get misguided. We go forward or backward, toward or away, upstage or downstage, inward or outward in so many cases. Our language and our culture impact how we talk about where we are going and even what directions are worth imagining. This affects our storytelling and our geometry, as well as the physics we can employ to make sense of everything.

Even the directions on the compass are relative. Thinking of a round globe -- go ahead and find a round ball to model this next bit -- we could be in different places on the planet and all point toward the same destination if we are thinking "north," the point about which the Earth pivots in this hemisphere. Yet, thinking about this big round ball, someone who points "east" on the opposite side of the planet will be aiming toward a different direction in space than we would at the same moment. Each of our "easts" would be opposite trajectories out into space. The map directions are only universal when you're thinking of a flat landscape, rather than a spherical one.

This exposes the most challenging direction in all of science, at least to my mind: the notion of "up" and "down." We define "up" to be a direction into space above our head, but that's determined by the part of the Earth we're standing upon. Each and every person pointing upward will be aiming in a slightly different direction, one that extends out into space that's unique to the part of this sphere they're standing on. But "down" is, in one sense, the same for each of us, toward the very center of the planet. Down is determined by the gravitation of Earth, a direction and unifying pull that assembles us.

Gravity and the orbits of satellites that carry GPS technologies work in concert with one another to determine your location to within a few steps with a simple ping, some precision timing and relativistic physics. With that quick calculation and some simple instructions, your phone tells you to turn right at the next intersection.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps prepare future teachers and supports educators throughout Utah.

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