Scott's Reviews > Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Longitude by Dava Sobel
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's review
May 23, 2008

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bookshelves: history, lives, ships, 1990s
Read in May, 2008

"On October 22, 1707, at the Scilly Isles near the southwest tip of England, four homebound British warships ran aground and nearly two thousand men lost their lives." The cause of this catastophe? Like so many other navigators before him, the admiral in charge of this fleet was lost, unable to discover how far west he was of his home port. Dava Sobel's Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time unravels the complex tale of how astronomers, quacks, politicians, and finally a humble watchmaker -- the "Lone Genius" -- struggled to solve the problem of accurately determining a ship's longitude at sea, so that in future, disasters like this deadly shipwreck could be avoided.

Sobel, a science journalist who has published in Harvard Magazine, Omni, Science Digest, and The New Yorker, writes about this complex problem with remarkable clarity and simplicity. Her slim volume can be read easily in a day or two, partly because of her narrative skill, and partly because she has not cluttered her "popular account" with long quotations or footnotes (she discusses her sources in a short article at the end of the book). In spite of its brevity, Longitude is filled with interesting and cogent information about 18th-century navigation, astronomy, watchmaking, and politics. There aren't true heroes and villains in this story, just hard working, dedicated men who were willing to devote their entire lives to solving the problem of where we are on earth, all the while beginning to unlock the relationship between space and time. If you enjoy watching NOVA or Scientific American, or if you find yourself thumbing through the science section of Newsweek, you'll like Longitude.

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Joel & Christie Hey Scott, I didn't know you had read this book. I am not surprised. You are pretty deep! Too funny. I like your review. Its thoughtful, insightful, reflective, beneficial. I really am a bit shallow. I consider myself like Ronald Reagan. I surround myself with smarter people like you.

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