Sunday, October 20, 2013

Live one day at a time emphasizing ethics rather than rules.

Tasman National Park Coastline #1, Tasman Peninsula. September 2013.

Longitude, Dava Sobel: A bit of background first: the "longitude problem" was one of the trickiest practical and scientific dilemmas of the eighteenth century. Lacking the ability to measure longitude made sailing around on unchartered oceans decidedly dangerous. For example, in October 1707 the English navy lost 2,000 men after the Admiral misgauged their position (by quite some margin). Even more bittersweet was the fact that the very same Admiral had earlier hanged a seaman who – having illicitly kept his own careful log – challenged those who argued that the fleet was in safe waters.

This disaster in particular prompted the English government to establish a Board of Longitude and it offered £20,000 – an immense amount for the time – for a solution to the greatest problem of the day. The quest to solve the riddle of longitude is at the heat of this book, which is in alternated moods a history of astronomy, navigation and horology (that’s the art of measuring time, for the uninitiated). It’s also a bit of a morality play in which the central figure is one John Harrison, a self-taught Yorkshire clockmaker, and his 40-year obsession with building the perfect timekeeper.

Although the concept of the popular history or popular science book written for the general reader is now very familiar, Longitude was one of the earliest success stories. It shouldn’t be surprising that science is full of great yarns, yet they are often not told because many of the critical components are beyond the reach of the layperson. This is a pity, as science resembles any other human activity, performed by people that sleep and breathe and cry and hold the same passions and prejudices as everybody else.

As such, Longitude has the hallmarks of such a tale. There are good guys and bad guys. You have an honest, hardworking fellow doing his best for the common but striking obstinacy from an establishment resistant to change and facing attack from more cynical types out to make a quick buck.

So we have the story. Interweaving these characters with interesting asides and cameos from some of the famous people of the day – Cook and Bligh, Galileo and Newton, King George II and a host of government ministers – as well as explorations of related scientific developments fill the book up with an awful lot of ideas.

I liked it, but must admit the sections delving into detailed explanations of advancements in theoretical physics or astronomy was somewhat hard-going. That said, I survived and no doubt you will too. C+.

Tasman National Park Coastline #2, Tasman Peninsula. September 2013.

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