National Geographic explorer Albert Lin exclusive: Lost Cities and the wonders of rereading history’s layers

Los Cities Photo With Albert Lin
Albert Lin uses his tablet to reveal the wooden huts which would have covered each stone terrace of Ciudad Perdida at the time of the Tairona. Pic credit: NGC/Blakeway Productions

There is no neat box of titles to describe explorer Albert Lin, whose middle name “Yu Min” translates to “citizen of the universe.”

Albert is an award-winning explorer of the National Geographic Society, a serial entrepreneur, a UCSD scientist, and a highly sought after storyteller. From the outer reaches of Mongolia to the dense jungles of Guatemala, his engineering savvy and innovative approach to exploration have created an opportunity for a new TV series — one that his National Geographic family obliged.

Lin was an academic who first applied for a grant to further his career in archaeological forensics and the fine tuning of technology used to peer into hard-to-access places.

In 2010, he got a grant for his Valley of the Khans Project, where he used satellites, drones, geophysics, and intensive ground exploration to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan.

This led him to become a member of the National Geographic Explorers society, and eventually, he got a gig as an on-air investigative reporter for the long-running Explorers TV series.

Lin’s expertise was rooted in his engineering background, and he created a platform to crowdsource human analytics of large amounts of Satellite imagery, merging remote field exploration with public participation.  His success here led him to consult at the Pentagon, the NGA, and Harvard Business School, where he was also invited to serve as an advisor to the HBS Digital Initiative.

He also co-founded Tomnod (Mongolian for “big eye”), subsequently acquired by the leading commercial satellite imagery provider, DigitalGlobe. Albert is also on DigitalGlobe Foundation’s board of directors.

He launched the NSF funded Engineers for Exploration program at UC-San Diego in 2010, which has sent hundreds of top engineering students from across the country into field expeditions around the globe. In 2015 he co-founded the digital k-12 education platform Planet3 Inc. to increase the USA’s stake in scientific literacy and increase interest among students to pursue higher degrees in mathematics, science, and engineering.

His list of awards and honors is staggeringly long, notably earning a National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2009, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Academic Achievement Award, the Explorer’s Club’s Lowell Thomas Medal, and the Nevada Medal as the youngest ever recipient.

However, it was an unfortunate personal setback in his life that eventually added even more entrepreneurial layers to his crowded CV.

Three years ago, he had a horrific accident that crushed his lower right leg and faced an amputation.

That adversity would sink many people, but Lin used his own misfortune to reprogram his thinking and to create a new interface between mind, body, society, and technology as a mineable frontier. Lin intends to push the research into pain management alternatives with technology and aims to help millions of people less fortunate than he is to obtain properly fitting prosthetic limbs.

Now, Lin’s latest effort, Lost Cities with Albert Lin, made with National Geographic, debuts this coming Sunday. It is an expansive globe-crossing and high-tech adventure that will revolutionize archaeology and exploration across the globe.

His use of LiDar and 3D scanning allows him to uncover cities that have been lost for centuries.  It is astounding no-miss television, filled with jaw-dropping reveals of hidden cities, architecture, and cultures, with all of their physical belongings and trappings long gone.

We spoke to Albert Lin yesterday about overcoming personal adversity and this fascinating new series that will inspire and interest the hardcore explorers, history buffs, and treasure hunters out there who know something special lies in wait under a visible horizon.

Monsters and Critics: You’re one of those rare Elon Musk types. You’re an inventor, a scientist, an explorer, an entrepreneur … you’ve got a real lust for life, as they say. When did you know — as a student before you got all of your higher degrees — that it wasn’t going to be enough for you to just be an engineer?

Albert Lin: Yes. I think … well, first of all, I feel super humbled in that comparison, and it’s really kind of you. But it has been one of those experiences where this life has felt like a series of unbelievable moments. And I can think of a moment, I guess where … my childhood was pretty awesome.

I had a father who is an astrophysicist and a mother who was a musician. I was really kind of raised in this really intense mix of both science and curiosity, as well as just creativity and art. And then when I was going through school, I think I just picked basically the hardest thing I could do. It just felt like the thing to do, take on the greatest challenge. And it ended up being engineering.

I started out doing aerospace engineering. And I was in there and I was cranking away and I was into it. I was into the whole idea of imagining new realities. But I did feel like I was not connecting with a part of me that was deeper inside, which was maybe just that thirst for the human experience.

The really deep down sort of childhood dream of being an explorer. I grew up with Nat Geo magazines lining the walls and Indiana Jones as a child mantra.

There was this moment where, in school, I read this article about this cave that had been found up in the Mustang region and Nepal. And the cave contained all these manuscripts that were sort of hidden, locked in time because the cave had become kind of high-altitude with the shearing of the glaciers moving away, the valleys far below.

Just locked there in time. And only climbers got to there, famous climbers. And I was a rock climber and I was interested in life, and our history, and our own past.

And that single moment, reading that one article made me realize that there was still this moment of discovery to be had. That we were still in a living age of discovery. And it was just years later that I started to look at the power of technology and how you could apply different ways of looking at exploration, that I realized that we’re actually not just sort of still in the age of exploration. We’re actually now in the true golden age of exploration because you can look with these new powerful ways.

With lasers, I can literally delete the trees or brush or shrub off of any mountainside, digitally, and reveal what’s underneath. You can look without destroying what’s underneath with things like ground penetrating radar and magnetometry and 3-D virtual reality to build it all back into some kind of virtual world.

But all those different things, those tools applied to opening the door just a little bit further into our understanding of self, understanding what it means to be human.

That became, I guess over time, a passion. A deep, deep, deep passion.

And when I showed up at Nat Geo for the first time, essentially at that point I was living out of my car trying to raise money for my first project. And I found out that Nat Geo was started by another fellow engineer, Alexander Graham Bell. And that really made me really believe that everything was in alignment.

M&C: I’m trying to piece together how you became one of their explorers, and how you got the grant to do the Valley of the Khans project. People are curious to know how you broke from academia and what you were doing, into a position where you became an on air correspondent for Explorer, but you also got a grant to do this project?

Albert Lin: Well, Nat Geo is one of the most incredible scientific organizations, as well as a media organization, that I know of. The nonprofit Nat Geo gives out grants. They have for many, many years.

It’s actually how they started. High-risk grants in exploration, right? Like really trying to give a grant where they fill a gap in how scientific research is funded. They create that sort of frontier that’s led to legacies like Jane Goodall and beyond.

So, for me, I grew up kind of always wondering if that was still possible. And one moment that really spawned curiosity for me, and belief that this was possible, was when I heard a lecture, where this guy who was using biomedical imaging tools to look between two walls for a lost Leonardo that he thought was his masterpiece.

He was a biomedical engineer and somehow he had connections with Nat Geo. And I guess he was a Senior Vice President of Mission Programs at the time, [he came] to campus. And somehow I got a look at the guy’s schedule at UCSD (University of California San Diego).  I realized that he had two meetings that were pretty close together, but with a little bit of a break on opposite sides of campus.

So at that point, like I said, I’d been fully committed to the idea that I was going to do this. I’d finished my Ph.D. and now I’d sold everything I had. I was living in my car to create this project at the least amount of cost available because I didn’t have much money. And I was looking for a grant to fly to Mongolia and take a team with the high tech tools that I could bring to bear, whatever I could find.

I made a plan for the whole thing. And I created all these documents and I’d gotten permission, I’d flown to Mongolia with the last that I had and gotten different bits of access here and there from the government. If I could take on those approaches, use noninvasive tools.

I met the guy right in the middle, basically in the cafeteria, because I could spot him from a mile away. And I just gave him the best one-minute pitch of my life. And so he left me a card and he went on, sort of like … I’m sure he gets pitched all day long.

And then, for the next year or half-year, I just wrote to him literally every single day, until finally, he’s like, well … his name was Terry Garcia. He’s like, ‘well, why don’t you just come to the society and tell us what you’re thinking about doing, and stop sending me all these emails.’

And that was the very beginning of it. I flew there on the shoestring and walked away with my first-ever grant. We took that grant, which was supported by the Waitt Foundation, and I took my team of fellow engineers and rock climbers out to the mountains of Mongolia.

M&C:  That’s a Testament to your tenacity. You have to have it in this world and this life. And that along with everything else along with taking people to places maybe that they’d never see in their lifetime, it’s an important lesson to impart.

Albert Lin:  Yes. I think that for me, in that, I think what I’ve realized in life is that basically, if you believe in something, and you really put your heart there, and you see it with the right perspectives, that perspectives allow you to basically solve any problem.

You can go around any barrier … if you’re able to be open enough to the different perspectives of ways to get through there. And that’s been as true in my academic career as in my career as an explorer and as a storyteller, but also my personal life, the different things that I’ve experienced in my personal life.

M&C: Let’s discuss Knights Templar gold in the first episode. It’s so interesting how the earth, just the natural ebb and flow, and then, of course, the rising seas, it takes back what man makes. And how you sort of were like basically in the shallows where the water was breaking. And retracing the exterior wall using 3-D … with the underground tunnels and mapping it all out, both underground as well as above ground. That’s fascinating.

Albert Lin: Yes. That was a crazy experience, but that’s just a sneak peek to a series of places that we went over the course of the year. We were in Colombia next, the jungles of Colombia, which is a whole other story.

I was on a tiny Island in Micronesia, which had, we discovered to be something that was, I think probably one of the most profound archaeological sites I’ve ever seen. I was in the mountains of Peru recently, looking for the origin stories of Petra. I was in the deserts of Jordan, looking at the journey that led to Petra.

Then I was in Norway. I was up in the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sleeps. Looking at fingerprints of ancient humans from 10,000 years ago, left on stone and seeing what they said about their world around them. In a single year.

So I’ve had this crazy journey where I’ve done essentially a transect of both our planet and also the human experience through time, in this … what I think of as basically the greatest honor of my life, to be on this journey with this incredible team of storytellers.

So this series, to me, has a very, very special place in my heart. Because it is truly, I mean, it truly is the dream that I always dreamed of coming true. When we were up in the mountains of Colombia, which you’ll see on Monday … so I think of Sunday was kind of like a sneak peek and then Monday being the real premiere, because that’s when it’s was going to be airing, is every Monday.

In Colombia, and we show up at the banks of the Sierra Nevada, which kisses the ocean. So you’re really seeing the ocean there, you’re at sea level. And within a matter of, maybe I think less than a hundred miles or so, you’re at an elevation of the base camp of Everest. So you’re going straight up, basically. And into the most intense jungle, ecological wonder you’ve ever been.

I’ve spent a lot of time in jungles, mostly in Guatemala, but never in a mountain jungle. And it’s just impenetrable. You can slip and fall at any moment because it’s all wet stone. But also, the kinds of ecological diversity that exist on that mountainside give way to all sorts of wildlife, from the world’s deadliest snakes … we lifted a rock once. There was a guy doing an excavation with one of our colleagues, and he found eight scorpions right there and under that rock.

And we had the military helping us, we had a squad of soldiers that were helping us hike out to these different super remote, never explored locations, that we were finding from our map that we created using the lasers mounted on helicopters. That is unbelievable as an experience.

But then to get to those locations, to find the things that we’re looking for, and to actually find new lost cities hidden high up in the mountains. That, to me, is where something like the magic of storytelling and the authenticity of a new age of exploration meets hand in hand. And then you get something very, very real and very, very powerful then.

M&C:  That’s a theme of your show, isn’t it? Everything is transitory. Everything changes. Yourself included. You had a major change in your life, and you didn’t let it get the best of you. You did the exact opposite. You actually turned it into an opportunity. And from what I’ve read, your interest in helping people with getting prosthetic limbs that fit properly, and helping with the opioid crisis and figuring out different ways to address chronic pain is all part of this very complex persona that you carry around. Talk about that.

Albert Lin: Well, that’s really kind of you to say. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by very supportive people, friends and family, and colleagues. And I think that that is a big part of it all.

I was in a car accident about three years ago. Actually, today is the three-year anniversary of the surgery in which they took my right leg. So three years ago, on this day, I was on a surgery table with my right leg below the knee being amputated.

And I had no idea what would come from that, what the world would bring. But I think it was this transition where I spent about a month in the hospital prior, having to make the decision about what to do. To be able to sort of come to terms with the idea of always being able to let go of the past and embrace the new, was something that I think has been a lesson that’s carried me really well through life.

It’s ironic, because I’m an archaeology fan, and I’m one who really, really cares about the past, our history. But I do that with a sense of trying to learn the lessons of our past to be able to embrace what’s coming next. And that was what happened with my leg. It was part of the friendship that I had around me that allowed me to really see a positive mental outlook as being the path forward, that perspective that we talked about.

But then also it was my friends at Nat Geo who called and said, okay, well, let’s not skip a beat. When you’re ready, let’s go to … we’ve got this … one of my good friends, Tom Garrison, had just gotten a big LiDAR scan commissioned of the whole jungle of Bhutan, basically. With a bunch of other colleagues, a consortium of archaeologists.

And Nat Geo said, well, do you want to go? Let’s go, let’s go. We’ll helicopter you into the most remote jungle we can find. And once you get your prosthetic, you should be fine. Good to go, no excuses, let’s do it.

It was just like incredible. Incredible, wonderful family-like experience of having Nat Geo say that they believed in me when nobody knew if I’d walk again.

And six months later, I’ve got a digital map on an iPad, created from lasers in the sky. And I’m hiking out with a machete 20 miles into a super remote jungle with a new part of my body, which is made out of metal and steel and carbon fiber. And that was, I think, maybe one of the best things that could have happened.

What I realized is that the tools that I had in archaeology, things like 3-D scanning and photogrammetry and stuff like this, they could totally be applied to the challenge of getting a prosthetic.

And I became a part of a [amputee] community that’s 40 million people large, of which only five percent have access to prosthetics. So I started taking the technology that was being used in archaeology and looking at my body as a new artifact. Trying to find ways of solving that problem with a team of really dedicated students and researchers at UCSD.

But, and so next month, I’m actually flying to India to meet with a collaborator to see if we can build out a larger project. But the thing that I think has been wonderful about the experience of filming this series, this series about going across the world and looking at all these different stories of our past.

And hiking into these super remote locations or flying in a Black Hawk helicopter across the desert, or doing all these other things, is that the whole story about my body and my leg, it’s kind of, like you said, it’s not really something that I think about that much anymore. Even though it’s with me in every step I take. Literally.

It’s something that I think has become a sense of pride for me that this is now my piece of body art, but we’re going to go, and we’re going to go to the end of the earth. And we’re going to look for things that tell us all about who we are, where we came from. And really the wonders that we can achieve when we apply human imagination.

Lost Cities with Albert Lin begins Sunday, October 20 at 9/8c with the premiere of Knights Templar. The official premiere date is October 21 at 10/9c all on National Geographic Channel. The series will air on Monday every week for six episodes.

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