Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: "Longutude," by Dava Sobel, 1995

Living in Warren and working in Ann Arbor is draining, on my gas tank, my time, and my sanity. To ease the monotony of the hour-long commute, I've taken to borrowing audio books from the Ann Arbor Library, to keep my mind occupied. Thanks to this, I've finally gotten around to reading (well, hearing anyway) a book that I've been meaning to read for no less than fifteen years: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel.

Longitude tells the story of John Harrison, a West Yorkshire carpenter who built what is universally regarded as one of the most important clocks in human history, the marine chronometer, without apprenticeship or training in the principles of clock-making. His machine was nothing short of a miracle; in an age where clocks could gain or lose as much as an hour a day on dry land, Harrison’s fourth sea-clock, “H4,” kept time to within five seconds during a six-week sea-voyage from England to Jamaica! (My mind has officially been boggled by this Harrison guy.)

Longitude a fascinating read. More than once I found myself gasping with surprise or laughing with amazement at the "true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time." I had no idea how difficult and dangerous seafaring used to be. Even in calm weather, and with favorable winds, every sea-journey taken beyond sight of land involved becoming lost at sea at some point. Sailors could find their way by the stars, but Polaris could only tell you how far north or south you were; it was impossible to judge your position relative to east or west. “In literally hundreds of instances, a vessel’s ignorance of her position led swiftly to her destruction” [Sobel].

For example: in October 1707, Admiral Sir Cloudesley-Shovell of the H.M.S. Association was returning to England with five warships under his command, after a victory against the French navy. The Admiral and his navigators believed themselves charting a safe course for northern England, but a sailor told them that he had been keeping his own private reckoning of their position, and feared that they would be smashed to flinders on the rocky cliffs of the Scilly islands.

The Admiral had him hanged instantly. It was insubordination verging on mutiny for a sailor, an uneducated seaman, to second-guess the judgment of his betters; it invited dissent and rebellion. But within 24 hours, just as the unfortunate sailor had predicted, the cliffs of Scilly loomed out of the fog, and four of Admiral Cloudesley’s five ships “pricked themselves on the rocks and went down like stones” [Sobel]. In the space of five minutes, the rocks became the unmarked graves of nearly 1,5000 English sailors.

In light of this disaster, Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (millions of dollars in today’s money) to anyone who could come up with an accurate and reliable method for telling time at sea, so that sailors could compare their perception of midday with the local time in their home-port, and figure out how far they were from home. Harrison’s clocks were entered into the contest, but Nevil Maskelyne, Harrison’s arch-nemesis, did everything in his power to discredit Harrison and deny him the prize, insisting that his own Method of Lunar Distances was far superior. (Even if it did take four hours to compute, and didn’t work on cloudy nights, new moons, or when the sea was rough.)

All in all, it’s a really good book. It made the science (and the danger, and the back-stabbing) come alive for me. John Harrison could easily be seen as a stuffy old man in a powdered wig, but this book made him flesh-and-blood, a real human being with real emotions, foibles, and shortcomings. Check this book out! Especially if you’re a scientist with children, or an elementary-, middle-, or high-school teacher who needs a way to get kids interested in science. It might be a bit dry for the ones who aren’t already into that stuff, but the book begins with a story about a massive shipwreck that's sure to hook anyone’s attention. After all, who can resist the lure of human tragedy?


  1. Dave, check your spelling in the title line...

    I will put this book on my never-ending too-read list! 'The lure of human tragedy' is maybe a little inaccurate, but massive shipwrecks are pretty fascinating. Except for the part where everyone dies.

  2. But that's exactly why they're so fascinating. It's the self-preservation instinct. If people didn't want to find out what happened to the other guy, to learn what exactly it was that killed him, we'd unknowingly walk straight into the same pitfalls as he did. Curiosity is a genetic advantage.