Book Review: Longitude

Longitude:  The True Story Of A Lone Genius Who Solved The Greatest Scientific Problem Of His Time, by Dava Sobel

On the one hand, this book is one of the author’s better books, not least because it has far less in terms of unpleasant gender politics than most of the author’s writings on popular astronomy.  That is not to say that this is a perfect book, though, because while it is easier to read and enjoy, there is something unsettling in the way that the author tries to paint John “Longitude” Harrison as a lone genius, when his efforts to make it possible to understand longitude did require a great deal of effort and a long time and the help of other people as well.  The story is a compelling one, without a doubt, but it is also the sort of story that carries with it some major tropes and that encourages the sort of lone wolf tendencies that many of its readers are likely to have.  Somewhere in praising the iconoclastic tendencies of its hero Sobel forgot the necessity and importance of working within institutions in order to receive lasting success in one’s endeavors, something that many people need to learn when it comes to creativity.

The less than 200 pages of this narrative take up fifteen chapters.  The author begins with the issue of imaginary lines for navigation in longitude and latitude (1).  After that there is a discussion of disasters that happened as a result of not being able to know the longitude (2).  There are discussions of the use of the planets and stars to master longitude as happened with Galileo (3) and the difficulty of keeping time constant while traveling at sea (4).  There are some truly baffling attempts to use powders to know longitude (5) and a discussion of the prize that the English Parliament set to encourage people to solve the longitude problem (6).  After that the author turns her attention to its main character, John Harrison, and his background (7) and the tests at sea of his first chronometer (8).  There are discussions of his bitter rivals who favored the method of using astronomy to solve the longitude issue (9) and some of the later machines that Harrison made (10).  There are discussions of the trials undergone by the chronometers that were deliberately difficult (11), and the stress that it put on Harrison to deal with the political drama (12).  By this point the author moves to a discussion of the importance of various chronometers on the second voyage of Captain Cook (13), the mass production of the devices for the British navy (14), and the way the machines can be enjoyed today (15).

Again, this is not a bad book, in fact, it is a very good one, but it is not quite as good a book as it thinks it is.  Specifically, the book encourages all the wrong sort of tendencies, making villain tales out of those who work within institutions and failing to recognize that it is not only creativity and originality but also institutional backing that is important in this world.  Perhaps we wish we lived in a world where talent and merit would be recognized apart from any other factors, but that is simply not the way things are, and this book is a good reminder that there are limitations to lone geniuses when it comes to solving massive problems like the longitude problem.  For one, those solutions have to be recognized by institutions like the Royal Observatory and the British throne and Parliament and the Royal navy, because the problems are themselves practical ones.  Fortunately, Harrison had some friends and was able to learn how to turn his chronometer into a smaller pocketwatch-sized machine, which is what allowed for his development to change the history of navigation.  Alone, he would not have been able to do it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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