Creative non-fiction writing has been the new big thing in literature for some time now. While science was being popularised long before the 1990s – Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene being a case in point – the last decade has seen a massive increase in the amount of “biographies of things”. These biographies may be on ideas, or inventions, or ordinary, everyday objects that we take for granted, but there is no denying that people interested in science – and the history of science – have benefited a great deal from the books lately pouring into their local shops.
One of the books most often credited for starting this new wave is a little piece called Longitude, which reached 7th on the New York Times book list for 1996. It has since been made into a deluxe, highly illustrated edition and has also been televised. Not bad for less than 200 pages!
Sobel used to be a science reporter for the New York Times, and then one day she went to cover a conference on longitude. A conference, I ask you. On longitude, for goodness sake. Who knew these things existed, and one could get a book out of it?
It deserves to be so popular. I have to admit, I was forced into reading this book. Course requirements and all that. How interesting could a history of longitude really be? I asked myself. I can’t honestly say that it was a subject I had any interest in – I’d only recently found a way of remembering which was latitude and which was longitude (longitude runs the length of New Zealand), so you can see I came ignorant to the topic. Yet I found it surprisingly enjoyable.
Yet this book appeals so to non-scientists because the geographical explanations, and the inner workings of clocks, are sandwiched between small interesting stories of a kind that can barely be believed. The first of these, after the overall introduction, is gruesome and black-humoured enough to get even my attention: it concerns the results of being unable to tell where your ship is, if you don’t have a reliable means of determining longitude. In 1707, the unfortunately named Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell (as in if only he had been hit on the head by a shovel) was bringing his fleet home from the latest squabble in France. It was a cloudy, foggy night, as English nights are wont to be, when some poor bastard of a sailor, whose name is lost to history, went to Admiral Shovell and said that, according to his private calculations, the entire fleet was about to run into the Scilly Isles.
Shovell had him hanged on the spot for mutiny, and what do you know?
Unfortunately, the nameless sailor was right. Unfairly, of the two survivors of the two thousand killed, one of them was dear Sir Shovell. The universe has a sick sense of humour, I tell you.
Anyway, it’s peppering the scientific history of longitude with stories like this that makes this little book so attractive to the reading public. . Invention was helped along, no doubt, by the reward of £20,000 offered to the solver of the longitude problem in 1714, no doubt by people who were sick of Shovellers.
Admittedly, for a history of science, the scientists themselves don’t always come across too well. Some of the experiments that comes out of this book do tend to show the essential ludicrousness of some of the things tried in the past by scientists – the vivisection of the dogs, for instance – and the constant changing of the prize rules to favour the efforts of Maskelyne, who wanted the loot for himself and was prepared to sit on the prize-giving committee to get it, shows that pettiness is universal.
However, it’s a layman clockmaker called John Harrison who finally cracked the problem, and Sobel’s descriptions of how and why his ever-improving clocks become more and more accurate in understanding and locating the problem of longitude are clear and easy to follow.
Longitude is not The Selfish Gene. It’s distinctly towards the popular end of popular science writing, but because of that anyone without even the slightest amount of geographical or horological know-how can grasp what’s going on without the bother of re-reading. In fact, the principle that Sobel appears to work upon here is that if you can read, you can understand. As such, it’s probably also quite a good book to give to kids who are interested in science (and even those who are not) as the pill is hidden in the jam.
It’s certainly better than many of Sobel’s later efforts, and is an appealing if undemanding addition to your history of science bookshelf.