Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

At our November 6 meeting we discussed Peter Farnum’s selection:

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Penguin Books, 1996.


About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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4 Responses to Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    How timely our November selection ends up being! The Nobel Prize in physics was just announced and one of the winners is David J. Winelind of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He says that much of the motivation for his work has been to devise more accurate clocks, because “when we have better clocks, we have better navigation.”

  2. Peter Farnum says:

    As most of you know I like to be provocative to promote book discussions filled with energy. I did this, with some success, with my original post on The White Tiger. Similarly, I offer this introduction to Latitude, our November reading.

    First, I have to say that I am definitely with Sid regarding the balance between the leader lecturing on a book and then having the discussion vs. not having a lecture and just letting people talk about their reactions to the book. In other words the I think the leader should be a facilitator not a lecturer.

    I believe the bulk of the knowledge about the book lies within the group. This approach was brought home to me clearly in many of the discussions at the Tacoma Film Club. Those discussions were great was because many people offered many very different perspectives, so the discussion was not dominated by just the leader’s ideas.

    Most of what I learned from those discussions came from hearing what other people saw and thought, often observations that I didn’t make or even think about at all. Those people’s fresh ideas were enlightening to me.

    So, as the facilitator of any discussion, I try to bring out the diverse ideas that the diverse members have garnered from the book, while regarding my ideas as no more special that anyone else’s.

    In trying to provoke some creative thoughts for you fellow readers, I’ll offer now a few of my personal reactions to Longitude. I hope they may stimulate fresh thoughts for our discussion.

    First, I was “gobsmacked” (legitimate to use since this is a book about England) that the determination of longitude was an unsolved problem so late in human development. I had assumed that because the Phoenicians and Greeks had been plying the Mediterranean since ancient times, and that Polynesians were crossing the Pacific without sophisticated instruments (certainly without clocks), that this problem must have been solved early in human history. I was wrong.

    Second, I was surprised how hard a problem it was to solve. Some of the world’s great minds had worked on it (e.g. Newton, Haley) and yet it took a very long time after the problem was fully recognized until it was solved. (An exact number of years is difficult to say since both the starting time for working on the longitude problem and the exact time it was solved, are subject to uncertainty.)

    It was such a difficult problem to solve that I think that if the Nobel Prizes had been awarded in Harrison’s time, he would have deserved to win one. (Though he probably would not have been given proper recognition because of the entrenched power of the astronomers.)

    Third, while reading Longitude I realized that my initial exposure to the lines of longitude and latitude was from the unintended consequences on the perceptions introduced concerning the way the earth looks in the Mercator projection map that hung on the walls of many, if not most, elementary school classrooms.

    mercatur map

    Let me elaborate. To one not informed in the details of cartography, the Mercator projection presents a misleading picture of the lands of the world. This applies to virtually every elementary school student.

    Any flat map of a round world has to have some distortion. The challenge is to choose which distortion is least harmful. Since longitude lines really converge at the poles, while the Mercator projection portrays them as parallel vertical lines, the distortion is to exaggerate the area of lands at high latitudes, e.g. Greenland. Correspondingly the lands near the equator are shrunken compared to their real relative size. (We know Africa isn’t smaller than Greenland).

    This distortion was augmented by locating the equator two-thirds of the way from the top of the map. It was done so that Antarctica did not cover the whole southern end of the world, but the psychological effect was to diminish the importance of lands in the southern hemisphere.

    The result (in the minds of the cartographically uniformed young students) is to emphasize the importance of Europe, and make the equatorial colonies, and hence their exploitation, less of an issue. I don’t believe that was Mercator’s intent, but politically that was the result of not explaining the map correctly in schools, and the leaders of the imperial countries of Europe benefited from this misconception.

    Since I grew up with this map in my elementary school classrooms these distortion were imprinted in my brain, and vestiges of them remain today.

    So as we read Longitude, let us remember that not only was determining longitude a very important and difficult problem, but also let us remember that distorting longitude (and its brother latitude) was a method of political propaganda that many of us still carry with us.

    Okay. That was something I had to get off my chest. Now back to the book.

    Fourth, I find it very interesting that our book club has chosen three books in a row that can be said to be about entrepreneurs. Balram speaks for himself and brags about being an entrepreneur. Jobs may be currently the most famous (infamous) entrepreneur of our time. Can Harrison be regarded as an entrepreneur too? I think so.

    He did not have the same objectives as the other two, but he had the same drive: to create, invent and make practical something completely new. It’s true that he didn’t commercialize the maritime chronometers, but he invented them and then left the commercialization and economic exploitation to others (much as Jobs left politeness to others, and Balram managed to escape from the morality associated with murder.)

    My point in linking these three as entrepreneurs is to bring us back to the question I asked at the end of our last discussion. The question was: “Which would you choose of two possible worlds: (1) the world with Jobs and all his creativity and the products he produced, given that they were coupled with his abuse of weaker people (e.g. his daughter); or (2) the world without Job’s abuse but also without the beautiful objects of art he produced and the influence that art had on the entire technological industry.

    In the last discussion, one of the off-the-cuff responses to my Jobs question was a dismissive one: “All Jobs did was make things happen sooner; he didn’t really change anything.”

    Let me be clear about that comment: I completely reject it. That response is simply a way to avoid a difficult question when one does not want to make a hard choice in a social situation.

    I was trained as a mathematician and an ecologist, and I carry with me an immutable learning from both of these subjects. That learning is: Everything is connected. We cannot make a change in one part of the world without changing the whole world, permanently.

    Let me refer you to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac for the ecological side of this argument, and to the Chaos Theory (a.k.a. the “butterfly” effect) for the mathematical part.

    Mathematics is basically the history of the accumulated learning about mathematics. Every new discovery builds upon ones made before it; therefore, any change in its history is a change in the discipline itself and in the way it develops.

    The ecological argument should be obvious to this group. If you cut down a dead tree in the PNW forest you destroy habitat for 50% of the native vertebrates. Destroy too many dead trees and the most beautiful woodpecker, the Pileated, is lost or becomes less important in these forests. Doing this 10 years earlier or later makes no difference. So, to make a change in the timing something is to change the whole world.

    This applies especially to new discoveries or the development of new knowledge. Suppose Einstein had been born 10 years later. Suppose the implications of his leanings (everything that led to the creation of the atomic bomb) had been delayed. World War II would have ended in a different way, and I doubt anyone could dismissively claim that was only a matter of timing.

    For example, my father repeated many times to me that I would probably have never existed if he had taken part in the ground the invasion of Japan. I bet I’m not the only one in our book club who might not be here in that case. Even something as fundamentally insignificant as the TRMBC would therefore be fundamentally different. Everything is connected, both the significant and the insignificant.

    So let us suppose that Harrison had not done his work when when did. The book argues that perhaps the Seven Years War might have had a different outcome or that the English Empire might have been developed differently. Everything is connected. Change the production of one entrepreneur and the whole world will be different.

    I’ll repeat my question again but in a less provocative way. How would the world have developed differently if Jobs, Harrison, even Balram, had not done what they did until say ten or twenty years later?

    I’ll emphasize the importance of this question by asking a whimsical one. Suppose we took the personality characteristics of these three entrepreneurs and switched them with those of the other two entrepreneurs. What would have been the result? For example suppose Harrison had been in Job’s place in Apple, or Balram in Harrison’s place, or Jobs in Balram’s place. You can figure out the other permutations. The answers, should we choose to discuss them, are reasonably obvious, and the lesson is that we can’t dissect the personality of the entrepreneur separately from his accomplishments.

    Therefore we can’t dismiss my original question. Unless we accept the negative aspects of entrepreneur’s personalities we cannot realize the benefits of their genius.

    Fifth, in our discussion perhaps we can consider the effect of oligarchies. Let’s make this simple. Harrison was impacted negatively by the oligarchy of the English astronomers (appointed by the king). As I sit here in France as I write and read about current events in the USA, it is clear that oligarchies are very active today. All of us are impacted. Balram faced his particular oligarchy. Jobs was a member of a significant oligarchy. Harrison was a victim of one. Here are three questions: Has the world always been subject to the effects of the power of oligarchies? Will it always be in the future? What can we do about it?

    Enough. I’ve violated my own beliefs about long introductions to books by the leader. This is all the introduction you get. I’ll start off the meeting by saying: “Who has something they would like to share, based, even loosely, on their reading of this book?”

  3. Ron Boothe says:

    As I commented on when we read this book, I thought the topic was fascinating, but was disappointed by the author’s poor job of explaining several sophisticated technical topics. One of these is the distinction between clock time and sundial time. I noticed today a very nice description of this distinction in the science section of the NYT.

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