Dava Sobel – Longitude (Book Review)

Longitude cover

Dava Sobel - Longitude

There are many things we take for granted today, but sometimes it’s surprising just how different life was before certain scientific advances. For example, did you know that well into the 18th century, people could determine their latitude by watching the sun but had no way to find their longitude? Ships would become lost or even crash because they misjudged their position by hundreds of miles, and in 1714 England offered a huge prize to the first person to find a solution to the problem. Dava Sobel’s Longitude is the story of this problem, and specifically of clockmaker John Harrison who developed timepieces accurate enough to offer a solution.

Though Sobel sets the story up well, with an easy to understand explanation of what longitude is and how people tried to calculate it, I was otherwise very disappointed with her writing. The early chapters, which establish the state of things before Harrison entered the picture, are unfocused and often repeat each other. A plot does develop once Harrison becomes involved, but it’s so sensationalistic as to be untrustworthy. Harrison is a noble hero, working alone on his clock-based answer against a cabal of scientists who insist that the only feasible solution must be based on astronomy. Harrison is an interesting figure – a self-taught clockmaker who advanced the state of the art significantly, and was such a perfectionist that he might have received the prize much earlier if he hadn’t pointed out the flaws in his own clocks. However, Sobel elevates him and his profession to a near-mystical status. “Time is to clock as mind is to brain”, she announces, making her apparently one of the few people in the world who think that brains share a common mind in the same way clocks measure a universal time. Or maybe she is denying any interaction between the mind and brain, and thinks they have a simple relationship in which one merely observes the other. She doesn’t really explain the statement, other than the equally confusing follow-up that clocks “somehow contain” time. She compares Harrison to Christ, and for some reason declares his first sea-clock superior to a “Hollywood time machine”.

Even when Sobel isn’t being outright confusing, the writing is exaggerated and dramatic. She sides strongly with Harrison, railing against the dirty tricks of his astronomical oppressors and pointing out every flaw in their plans while dismissing issues with the clock-based technique. I found it to be so overdone that I questioned the book’s authority, frequently wondering what I wasn’t being told. By the end, when Sobel is literally moved to tears by Harrison’s life, I felt completely uninvested in the characters or story.

Longitude’s saving graces are that it does tell an interesting and little-known story, and can be read very quickly. Considering the quality of the writing, though, it’s still difficult to say who would find it worth reading.

Grade: C-

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