Book Review: The Illustrated Longitude

The Illustrated Longitude:  The True Story Of A Lone Genius Who Solved The Greatest Scientific Problem Of His Time, by Dava Sobel And William J.H. Andrewes

If you have already read Sobel’s Longitude, you have already seen all of the text that is in this particular book.  Indeed, I mistakenly thought that there were two different textual versions when I originally got both editions of the book from the library, and to my surprise I found out that the shorter paperback of less than 200 pages and the larger-sized book with 200 pages of text in it were actually the same book, except one had pictures and the other did not (except for the cover).  Early in this book it is said that the only way that one could make this book better is with pictures, and while this book is definitely better for its illustrations, it is not as if the original book was without flaws.  Indeed, one of the most amusing aspects of this book was the way that a previous reader had annotated this particular volume to point out a couple of flaws in it, namely the authors comment about how the component metals were combined in order to preserve the same length regardless of the temperature conditions faced by the chronometer, and once to point out that there are subtle differences between GMT and Universal Time.

Indeed, like its text-only counterpart, this book is divided into the same fifteen chapters that introduce the problem of longitude, explore some of the ways that it caused death when people ran up against unexpected shores thinking they were hundreds of miles away, and how there were essentially two different ideas of how to know longitude, one based on the mechanics of the clock (ultimately used by John Harrison to solve the problem with his chronometer) and the other based on celestial mechanics that was favored by court astronomers and the scientific establishment.  This being an underdog tale, the author’s sympathies (and likely the reader’s as well) will be with the lone underdog who occasionally asks Parliament for money while solving the problem mostly on his own–although there are clearly some ways in which he was influence by others, especially in his decision to turn his third model into a small watch that was far more portable than his first two solutions.  And when he is vindicated at last and his solution is mass-produced by others, the author can close with a glorious look at his machines and their restoration, with the reader appreciative of the lone genius that worked for decades to solve a problem some people thought impossible.

And really, the text is improved with the pictures, whether one is looking at photographs or looking at designs or examining maps.  Even as someone who is generally a pretty textual person, it is easy to see that this subject matter is improved with visual aid, especially because chronometers and the travel of people through the ocean and the shrinkage of estimates of land once proper coordinates are known are all matters that can easily be conveyed through appropriate visuals and are much more difficult to explain in text alone.  One wonders why Sobel didn’t want to focus on a well-illustrated version of her book to begin with, since at least a few of her other books are richly illustrated.  With illustrations, this not only becomes a good book to read but also one which can easily appear on someone’s coffee table to be paged through admiringly by visitors to one’s house, which is definitely no small benefit.  It is also easy to wonder if the author’s work will be improved by comments like that which I found in this volume, as its minor errors probably should be corrected for the author to really show her expertise in matters of popular science as she would wish to show.

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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