Review: Exploring The Science Of Navigation


The Science Of Navigation: From Dead Reckoning To GPS
by Mark Denny
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
Paperback US$27.15/Hardcover US$65.00/Kindle US$16.50
Reviewed by Gerard Hyland (GC handle: GSVNoFixedAbode)

“To paraphrase Douglas Adams, most geocachers no more know the navigational lineage behind their GPSr than a tea leaf knows the history of the East India company.

Gerard Hyland

Many of those geocachers will be happy in this state of unbeknownst ignorance.

For the rest, those curious ones who enjoy finding information as well as little boxes, this book delivers a find well worth a smiley and a Favourite point!

From the jacket: “Mark Denny is a theoretical physicist who worked in academia and industry. He is the author of a number of books for scholars, students, and general readers, most recently Gliding for Gold: The Physics of Winter Sports; Their Arrows Will Darken the Sun: The Evolution and Science of Ballistics; and Super Structures: The Science of Bridges, Buildings, Dams and Other Feats of Engineering,all published by Johns Hopkins.

That should be enough to tell you that the author is a very knowledgeable person who can deliver detailed scientific information in a clear, concise and readable format.  The Science of Navigation is no exception and is packed full of the detail promised in the title.

The reader is taken from the basics of the Earth and its properties; how people have recorded these properties with cartography, through the evolution of navigation and the drivers behind the discoveries; how exploration pushed technology; right up to more recent scientific processes that we are familiar with – radio, radar, and yes, GPS.

There are four Quadrants to the book: Geodesy, Cartography, Early Exploration and Navigation, and Navigation in Modern Times.  Each quadrant delves into the subject matter with examples, diagrams, anecdotes, and many references for those who want to delve further down into the rabbit hole.

There’s no heavy mathematics to bog the reader down, and there’s a technical appendix for those who want to stretch things a little further, covering map projections and the gyrocompass.

Pliny the Elder

From Pythagoras and Pliny the Elder, to the Pole Star and piloting coastal waters, Denny explains the layers that have been built up over the centuries to allow navigation across land and water, both day and night.  He explains how navigation and measurement has developed through mechanical, magnetic, electro-magnetic, electronic, and back to mechanical (MEMS), as well as our beloved orbiting constellation of satellites.

At times, the references and side text explanations can be a little distracting but the overall balance of people, history, and physics is good and avoids a dry discourse.  It’s not the sort of tome that Deep Thought might produce, but a content-rich and enjoyable read.

Star-struck: A Northern Planisphere geocoin.

Does the book mention geocaching? Only on the back cover.  It will, however, give you an appreciation of how we get from A to B along with a hankering to collect those special sextant and related navigation geocoins.

I found this a fascinating exploration of the hidden history behind the device I hold in my hand while hunting those little boxes in the woods and I suspect many other geocachers will as well.

Oh, and there’s potential for many a puzzle cache hidden in the detail!”


Definitely one for the Christmas list.


  1. Nighthawk700

    Looks like a fascinating read, but at that price I think I’ll wait and see if my library gets it first. Also, Amazon is showing the Kindle version as $16.50 (USD).

    Interesting side note, your link for the Kindle price “ TBC” is showing as coord.info TBC; which is a travel bug that started nearby in Virginia (US), and is now in New Zealand.

  2. Louis Caplan on Facebook

    I commented on this in the blog, but the comment is still awaiting moderation. But the Kindle price (you have TBC) is $16.50. I also posted something about the TBC link you have there as well.

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