Mattie'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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Jan 05, 2012

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Read in February, 2012

In an era in which GPS devices that can pinpoint our geographical positions with creepy accuracy are ubiquitous, it's almost impossible to imagine that people once sailed vast oceans without much reliable sense about where they were, particularly with respect to longitude. And yet, they did, making the need for a way to determine longitude a scientific problem with geopolitical and very human consequences. That this problem should have been solved by a quirky guy without formal training and position is just the sort of thing that people love to hear.

And Dava Sobel has done a nice job in presenting this story, making it easy and fun to read. In the epilogue Sobel notes that not bogging the book down with footnotes was a conscious choice to preserve the book's appeal in the popular history/science genre. Fair enough, but I think I'd have actually like a little more of the research and would have been interested in the footnotes Sobel might have written.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary I really think that balance is where endnotes are valuable -- if you want to know the info is there, if not you ignore the pages at the back.

Mattie Yes, agreed!

message 3: by Bruce (new)

Bruce I'm with Mary on this. If you're going to write nonfiction, you have to be willing to cite your sources to be taken seriously. Anything else is just intellectually lazy. (Good review, BTW... who was the guy that solved longitude and does Sobel explain how it was he came to figure it out?)

Mattie Bruce - He was a self-taught clock maker who figured out how to make high-precision, virtually friction-free clock components of non-rusting materials and how to keep them in balance while at sea. He also figured out how to mix materials and make components to compensate for each other in response to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Pretty cool for a the 18th Century. I can't say Sobel entirely gets into his head abou how he hit upon his eureka moments in the solitude of his studio, but I'm not really going to fault her for that. What does make the story fun is that she does a good job highlighting the David & Goliath aspects of this "nobody" taking on some of the major power players (like the Royal Astronomer) and the competing factions - clocks versus stars as the way to determine longitude.

message 5: by Bruce (new)

Bruce A clock maker. Huh. Was Newton the RA he beat?

Mattie Nevil Maskelyne, actually.

message 7: by Bruce (new)

Bruce So, slightly less impressive, then. Still, it's not like *I'm* going around discovering longitude, so who am I to be fussy?

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