Longitude Synopsis :
The dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest: the search for the solution of how to calculate longitude and the unlikely triumph of an English genius – reissued on the tercentenary of the foundation of the Longitude Prize Anyone alive in the 18th century would have known that ‘the longitude problem’ was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day – and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing fortunes of nations, hung on a resolution.
The quest for a solution had occupied scientists and their patrons for the better part of two centuries when, in 1714, Parliament upped the ante by offering a king’s ransom (£20,000) to anyone whose method or device proved successful. Countless quacks weighed in with preposterous suggestions. The scientific establishment throughout Europe – from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton – had mapped the heavens in both hemispheres in its certain pursuit of a celestial answer. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, dared to imagine a mechanical solution.
Full of heroism and chicanery, brilliance and the absurd, Longitude is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation and clockmaking.
Ah, the curse of high expectations… Longitude was a breakout bestseller for science journalist Dava Sobel, staying on the New York Times bestseller lists for more than six months. And a title I’d had on my wish list for a long time.
That fact is often stranger than fiction, is the reason that narrative non-fiction involving the folly of human endeavour, can be so compelling. So to what extent can this book’s success be attributed to the subject matter as distinct from the quality of it’s telling?
Sobel has done a fine job researching and piecing together the disparate events and actions of individuals (sometimes absurd) that culminated in a solution to the ‘longitude problem’, one of the reasons travelling was so perilous at that time. She explains scientific concepts in language accessible to a broad audience and lifts the veil on underhanded and self-serving behaviour of some in positions of influence. Throughout history, ‘same story, different characters’.
It would take a heartless (or perhaps ignorant) reader to not feel moved and admiring of the life-long sacrifices made by select individuals, that against great odds, forged these scientific advancements we all take for granted today.
Having established itself securely on shipboard, the chronometer was soon taken for granted, like any other essential thing, and the whole question of its contentious history, along with the name of its original inventor, dropped from the consciousness of the seamen who used it every day.
But Sobel’s narrative… it just felt as though it was lacking something. It fell short of what it could have been in my opinion. Perhaps it was the order in which the information was conveyed, or the fact that very little is actually known about the early life of the hero in this David and Goliath story. There were moments where the narrative shone, particularly towards the end of the text when the author’s passion for the subject matter and the plight of the people involved was clear. In comparison, some earlier sections felt a little dry and clinical; they lacked the narrative flair I’d hoped for.
Despite not quite living up to my expectations in delivery, the micro-history of Longitude is one I’d still recommend for consumption. Joining the dots between names and achievements well known, and those less so, it is fascinating and informative from both a scientific and anthropological perspective.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5
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Genre: Non Fiction, Historical
Author Information: Dava Sobel is the bestselling author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and The Planets, coauthor of The Illustrated Longitude, and editor of Letters to Father. She lives in East Hampton, New York.