One of my Ph.D. students told me today that he is happy so many students are showing up to volunteer to work with us on our research. This allows us to ask each student to try an alternate way of doing things. If one approach doesn’t work out, then another one will.
I responded by telling him that once, when I was a child, our parents took us to the Hayden Planetarium, to see a show about how ancient peoples used the stars to navigate. In one part of the show that has stayed with me, I learned that the ancient Polynesians were able to travel by boat between islands that were separated by hundreds of miles. This is a very impressive feat, when you consider that even the slightest error in heading would lead to death at sea.
They did it like this: Any young man on an island could volunteer to pick a night of the year, and a star to follow. If, following that star, the intrepid youth made it safely to another island, then he could use the same star at the right time of year to find his way back. Most of these brave young men died at sea. But the few who had chosen the right path, and thereby returned safely, were highly celebrated, and assured of wealth, high status, and their choice of mate. Basically, they were set for life.
Over the course of hundreds of years, we were told, a huge number of routes were mapped out in this way.
That, I told my Ph.D. student, is what we’re doing by setting each student volunteer to trying an alternate approach. Although, I added, we are not actually killing any of them.
“Is there a name for this technique?” the Ph.D. student asked.
I had to think about that a moment. “I guess,” I said, thinking of the Polynesians, “we could call it the Poly-path algorithm.”