Interview: NatGeo Explorer Albert Lin on ‘Lost Cities: Revealed’

Haylee Fisher
21 Min Read

Albert Lin’s story is one of determination and inspiration.

Bit by the curiosity bug at a young age, he became an engineer to learn more about how the world worked. He later caught the attention of National Geographic and received a grant to search for the missing tomb of Genghis Khan. For his work, he was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2009 and has been a National Geographic Society Explorer since 2010, hosting a number of shows for the network.

In 2016, he was involved in an open-top four-wheel-drive-vehicle accident, where he lost part of his right leg. However, it didn’t stop Lin from leading an active life, thanks to his high-tech prosthetic. And National Geographic supported him throughout his recovery and was ready to dive back in with him as soon as he felt comfortable.

Since 2019, he has hosted Lost Cities with Albert Lin, the newest edition of which just premiered on National Geographic. 

In the six-part Lost Cities: Revealed, Lin takes viewers to some of the most remote places on Earth, including the deserts of Sudan, the caves of Oman, the cliffs of Scotland, the jungles of Mexico, and beyond.

Nerds and Beyond had the chance to speak with Lin about how he and his team use cutting-edge technology to uncover the secrets of ancient civilizations and push the boundaries of exploration, why uncovering secrets of the past is relevant to our future, and more. 

Nerds and Beyond: For my day job, I work at a university. I know you have a background in engineering, so I was wondering about your transition from engineering to exploring and what advice you would give to students who are in the process of figuring out their futures.

Albert Lin: You’re asking me to give a commencement speech right now? [Laughs] But ok, so I grew up in academia. My family was always bouncing from university to university because my dad was an astrophysicist. So I grew up in this world of wonder. And I’ve always felt like that’s my home, the whole experience of being an engineer. I think I sometimes got lost in things like, “OK, how do I build this? How do I build that?” But really, what’s being built is this process of imagination. It’s like, “Oh, my God, everything around me, every chair, every building, every everything was imagined in the mind and then turned into reality.” So that, to me, is kind of like the secret sauce of our humanity. 

Now when I go and think about what it means to be an explorer and engineer, I can go back to the roots of National Geographic, and I find that at its DNA, at its core. National Geographic was founded by a group of people, the most prominent of which was Alexander Graham Bell, which to me is an example of where the tools we create are meant to be used for tapping into our wonder. And that’s an example of what the essence of National Geographic is. It’s like this lens to wonder. But it was created through all the different ways that we get to see the things that we see. Whether it’s with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging laser) to reveal the jungle underneath us or whether it’s the first telescope or the first compass you know. And so, yeah, the transition [from engineering to exploring] was pretty wild, but it was natural.

When I finished my PhD at UC San Diego, I read a couple of different articles of discovery that were happening out there. One was on the use of satellite imagery to try to find places where they thought the limestone was leaking into the canopy. And you could see where potential Maya ruins were. I couldn’t believe people were doing this!

There was a guy who came and gave a lecture at the university where I spent all my life, UC San Diego, where he was using bio-imaging tools to try to look between these two walls for where he thought this masterpiece of Leonardo Da Vinci would be in the Piazza Vecchio. So all these things were happening. And I’m looking at these job fairs and I’m like, “I don’t know if I should do this.” So I sold everything I had. I moved into my car I wrote this plan out where I was like, “This is how I’m going to launch this expedition to go to Mongolia and search for the tomb of Genghis Khan using satellites, drones, crowdsourced analytics, radar.” All these different things. I pinned it to the window of my little car, and I just started writing about it, raising money and working with other engineers who were all my grad student friends to try to come up with little prototypes of how we were going to do this. And you’ve to believe in your dreams, right? And I couldn’t believe it, but about six months, maybe a year into it, while I was totally sick of ramen and I hadn’t had a real meal in years, I got my first grant from National Geographic and that was the start to it all. You gotta kick the door to your dreams, you know?

Nerds and Beyond: You sort of touched on it, but I want to hear a little bit more about your history and how you went from living in your car to hosting these shows. 

Albert Lin: You just got to take a big bet on it you know? I think we go through life often using our Plan B as our Plan A. Like, “I have to do this, I have to do that, so in case my big dream doesn’t happen, then I’ve got this fallback.” But instead of putting the fallback first, put your big dream first. You only get one shot, so do it. And for me, there has always been something where the more I say something out loud or I write it down, the more real it becomes. It’s like manifesting or fake it ‘til you make it, or whatever you want to call it. But now, I pinch myself every day. Thinking about this last year, we went to six different places around the world. In each one of them, we made real discoveries. Discoveries that provoke a sense of wonder in me that’s deep and meaningful. And with the show, it’s almost like, it’s not a TV show, it’s a quest. It’s been a life quest. And so I’m just so proud of what has become.

Nerds and Beyond: As you mentioned, you work with researchers, archaeologists, anthropologists, etc. on Lost Cities Revealed, pushing each other forward and making genuine discoveries. What does it mean to you to bring these big budgets and resources to these scientists and to share the experience of witnessing these never-before-seen cities?

Albert Lin: It’s been awesome. You know, archeology is not the easiest field to get funding for. But each one of these stories is super important. And the fact that we can bring this technology to these places that are not only hard to get those kinds of resources to do those kinds of surveys for, but they’re also very remote. They’re very hard-to-get-to places. And the conditions are challenging. I mean, we’ve lost all of our cameras in a crazy raft accident on the headwaters of the Amazon, and we were in the deserts of Sudan right before the coup broke out. Things like this are happening around us and we’re using all these tools and we’re capturing this information in these pretty intense circumstances. 

But what has really been gratifying for me is that on the ground, these cultures are still alive, right? For example, in Peru, we found all these new sarcophagi hidden, these mummies hidden up on the side of these cliffs. And when we brought that information down, the archeologists were profoundly moved. But it was the people that were standing around that started gathering in this little room. One of them started crying. They’re climbing on the rafters. They’re looking at their own ancestry. And it was meaningful to them. Each story is not just a story of discovery that’s some esoteric thing in the past. It’s a part of identity for people that are alive today. And that to me is where the biggest reward is.

Nerds and Beyond: You touched on challenges. It made me laugh that of all the things you were saying, that you were out in the middle of nowhere and got a flat tire in one of the episodes. You prepare for the worst, and then it’s like “Oh, just a flat tire.”

Albert Lin: Yeah, we’ve had some funny ones. But that flat tire you talked about, the one in Oman in the desert, could have been a lot worse because they were coming downside of that dune and hit the side of the dunes so hard, the tire ripped off and they could have flipped. And we were in the middle of nowhere. We’re in the deserts of Arabia. We were specks in the sea of sand. 

Nerds and Beyond: Right, that’s what I mean! You’re preparing for something way worse, like bad weather, but at least it was only something like a flat tire!

Albert Lin: Oh yeah.

Nerds and Beyond: You mentioned the technology that plays such a huge part in your explorations. And I was blown away by the LiDAR and you can just scan this tract of land and see what used to be there, even the buildings that used to stand there, or even underground. Can you tell me just a little bit more about the equipment that you use and how you hope that tech evolves in the future?

Albert Lin: This technology is creating a new age of discovery. And it’s not just us using it. It’s being used in communities around the world. But it is mind-blowing. What LiDAR does is it allows you to look through with all these different lasers pointing up and down, top to bottom. But if you delete the top layer, then you’re left with what was once there, imagining it as it was thousands of years before. And then on top of that, what we’ve done is we’ve brought the best VFX artists to rebuild these worlds as they once were, as they were imagined. So it’s not only the discovery process, but also the the reimagining of what was there. What we’re trying to create in each one of these episodes is that we allow you to see things, feel things that were hidden or lost in the jungle for years or in the sands. For example, we used ground-penetrating radar in Sudan to reveal what was once the ancient capital of the Cushites. The site is called Napata, where you see this temple to the god Amun and these pyramids and these people who at one point ruled Egypt. But they were in Sudan. What? And they built these pyramids that people don’t know much about? Where did they live? And then all of a sudden with the LiDAR, you see this city emerge, the halls, the walls, the alleyways. And when you’re standing there, you almost start hearing the people in the bustling streets again, even though it was a thousand years ago.

Nerds and Beyond: I know that you traveled all over the world. What are some of your favorite places that you’ve been and what are some places that you would like to go?

Albert Lin: Big questions! I don’t know. Everywhere is a favorite. That’s what blows my mind. I can’t pick one favorite because the truth is, every time I travel, my expectations are always blown away. You go to a place and you expect you’re going to see something that you’ve read about. But really what ends up happening is that you feel something that you didn’t know you were going to feel. And that’s where all the wonder is. If there’s going to be one favorite and I’m always going to go back to it, then I’m done. That’s where I’d be going. But what I think is really incredible is that there isn’t a favorite. That every single time I go to a new place, I feel something different about myself and it changes my own humanity. And I think that that’s what this show is trying to do. To show people that these worlds exist out there, both in our modern era, where they can go to them now, but they also exist through time. These places, they’re all experiments in how we gather ourselves. They rise and they fall away. And each one of them, they tell us something about who we are. There’s like a little essence of that feeling that I described. And in each one of these episodes, you can find that in yourself. And so hopefully this becomes much more. It is entertaining. It is an adventure, it is discovery, it is technology. But also it’s philosophical. There’s stuff in there that reveals stuff about who we are. And so that’s why I think I’m just so proud of it.

Nerds and Beyond: Lastly, in so many instances, Hollywood prioritizes entertainment over exploration or science and National Geographic endeavors to bring the wonder of our world to everybody, so I just wanted to get your thoughts on what you hope audiences take away from the show.

Albert Lin: Hopefully they’ve just eaten a bunch of turkey and they’re sitting there watching! It’s airing Thursday night and then all the episodes go to streaming with new episodes on TV every Thursday. But for me, what this show represents is the same thing that the magazine represented to me when I was a kid. That I’d open that magazine and I’d see wonder. I’d see a lens through the world. I’d be confronted with these questions of identity in myself, but also it brought me out of the the walls of my room. It was like, “Oh, my God, there’s there’s all this out there!”

And this show is adventure. It is wondrous discovery. But I think throughout my whole life, what I’ve figured out is that we’re on a long continuum. We’re in this final chapter right now, and there’s going to be more chapters afterward. But there’s all these different pages of our book. And if you just look at this one page, you don’t understand why everything is the way it is. You don’t understand where the next page might be going. You don’t understand how to write the next page. But if you start to look at all those different chapters that existed at the time, then this continuum that we’re on here becomes so much more profound. It’s like you’re getting dropped into a scene of a movie, but you need to know what happened to get there, right? And you need to know where we’re going, why we’re going. That’s what I hope people will get out of it. That there’s this bigger continuum, but also that all those different things, all those different chapters, is this incredible adventure. There’s a Disneyland ride about Indiana Jones because of how fun all of this is. And it’s real! This is what really happens! These expeditions that you’re going to see on the show, they’re real! We don’t plan for these discoveries to happen. We hope they’re going to happen. But it’s down to the wire sometimes. When I pull up a piece of pottery or we see the data for the first time [and you see] that look in my eyes? That’s what I’m feeling in my heart. And I hope you feel that, too, because that sense of wonder is one of the most special parts of being alive.

Lost Cities: Revealed with Albert Lin premiered November 23 on the National Geographic Channel and is available for streaming on Hulu and Disney+.

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Haylee has loved writing since she was 8 years old, when she would sit in front of the TV handwriting (see: doodling) recaps of shows such as The Munsters, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. She started writing for Nerds and Beyond in September 2023. She previously wrote for Nerd HQ for over five years where she had the honor of interviewing celebrities including author Andy Weir, actor Zachary Levi, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and many others. When not writing, you can find her reading or binge-watching her favorite shows. Current fandoms include Roswell, New Mexico, and Our Flag Means Death. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @haylee_fisher
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