Dava Sobel: World's Fair Advisory Board Nominee #4

Nominee #1: Karl Iagnemma
Nominee #2: Chris Ware
Nominee #3: Richard Powers
Nominee #4: Dava Sobel

She's been a science news reporter for The New York Times, a freelance science writer for a good dozen magazines, and author of several successful books. Oh yes, she has her own webpage ("a science writer's site"). She was the editor of one of those "Best Science Writing of the Year" things a few years back. And, cutting right to it, Longitude (1995) and Galileo's Daughter (1999) alone merit her nomination. She has a new book, The Planets (2006), that I've not read. And I'll level with you: it's Longitude, mostly, that grabbed her the nomination. Or, better put, her nomination could stand on Longitude alone. So let me wax nostalgic on that for a few lines.


Longitude is about the race to build a sea-worthy timepiece. The prize for doing so, as set out in the British Longitude Act of 1714, was given by the Queen of England. You got 20,000 English pounds for it. Shipwrecks were common. The loss of cargo was expensive. Ships often wrecked because they didn't know where they were. They didn't always know where they were because they had no dependable gauge of longitude when at sea. They could tell latitude fine. The sun, the sky, the stars were good for that. But longitude was another matter. So, a ship would turn left, and bear down on rocky shores, when it was supposed to steer right. They were still mastering dead reckoning, more or less. I'm no sailor, so I'm not getting the naval lingo right here. But that's the gist. You want to know longitude.

The story in the book is of John Harrison, the guy who did the job. He was a carpenter, and then a clockmaker. He was a technician, that is. He was not a philosopher. And thus he was not within the dominant t knowledge-producing circles of English society. Those at the Royal Society, the mathematicians and official types, fully expected to win the prize. They shunned John Harrison, the carpenter-turned-clockmaker, whose pendulum clock eventually did the job; they made tests if his clock difficult; they controlled the terms of a successful experiment. In those regards, Sobel does a fantastic job laying out the terms of the story and giving a strong sense of what was at stake in the race.

I've taught the social history of technology (and I've made note of this before), and the first semester of that course begins in the ancient world and ends at the industrial revolution in Europe. That's an amazing span to cope with in 15 weeks. Not easy. So half the course went from the Aztecs to the Reformation. And about half took it from the early modern era (lets say late 16th century) up to the early 19th century. We didn't read Longitude in the class; we watched the film version. It was a perfect hinge/pivot between the technical knowledge-making sensibilities of a pre-Enlightenment world and the rising technical sensibilities of what we generally call the modern age (post-18th century, on this count). It was a beautiful contrast and overlapping between authority structures--the lone carpenter with his inelegant methods and the austere scientific society with its methodological strictures and mathematical aptitude.

The point is that the movie was riveting for the students and provided the perfect commentary on the value of technology, knowledge, and values. And I thank Sobel for writing it. And now I nominate her for the World's Fair Advisory Board because of it.

To accompany the nomination, here are some more links to reviews and interviews and the like:

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I was inexplicably moved by Galileo's Daughter, a book that I've re-read a half dozen times over the years. I see now that Longitude sits on my bookshelf, half-read and forlorn, asking for a second chance. It will be done.

By igor eduardo kupfer (not verified) on 10 Jan 2007 #permalink