Saturday, August 08, 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

In this day and age we take knowing where we are on the planet for granted. I was surprised to discover how difficult a problem this was for sailors before the nineteenth century. Latitude could be discovered by watching the stars, but longitude didn’t have a reliable way of being measured. This caused an amazing amount of tragedy on the high seas, such as when Admiral Sir Clowdisley misjudged his longitude in the fog and sailed his armada into the rocks in 1707 losing almost two thousand men. This was such a large problem that most major governments offered a king’s ransom for the person that could create a device that solved the problem. The man that eventually claimed the prize wasn’t a scientist, engineer, or an astronomer, but a clockmaker. With so much money at stake, politics and professional jealousy worked against John Harrison, but he persevered and changed the face of navigation. I picked this up on a whim, but was glad I did—this was much more entertaining and interesting than I’d expected.

First Sentence:
Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved.

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