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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. New York: Walker, 1995. ISBN: 978-0802713124

This is one of those nonfiction popular scientific books that have become so ubiquitous in recent years. It's been on my “to read” list ever since it first came out, but the old “so many books, so little time” paradox has kept it unread by me until now. It's a relatively easy read. Even in the large print edition that I happened to pick up from a display at my local library it is under 200 pages.

The title really tells much of the story. The problem of ships at sea knowing just where they are was one of the major scientific conundrums for centuries. A very real problem, it lead to the loss of many ships, lives, fortunes, and even wars and kingdoms. The solution? A clock that could keep accurate time at sea. Although a parallel solution was also under development and came to fruition at about the same time, involving extremely complicated calculations, based on plotting of the path of the moon against the stars.

The conflict comes from the fact that astronomers were in charge of awarding the huge prize that the British government had promised to whoever could solve the problem. And naturally, they tended to favor the astronomical solution as more “scientific” than a mere clock.

It's a fascinating story, and Dava Sobel is a thorough if not always scintillating storyteller. Definitely recommended.

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