Longitude by Dava Sobel
14 October 2002

 

Ah, so it's not just the revelation of facts that makes me enjoy non-fiction. Longitude is closer to history than science, yet halfway through I found myself picking it up with the same eagerness that I associated with In Search of Schroedinger's Cat. Perhaps it is really the voyeuristic pleasure of learning about others' lives that I like.

The story of John Harrison's quest for the longitude prize in the mid-eighteenth century interested me less than some of the more scientific books I have read, probably because it didn't challenge me so strongly (this little book is a mere 175 pages). However, it did make for easier reading. I never had to work at it as I did Schroedinger. Despite that, it took me nearly three weeks to finish becasue it was neither mentally nor emotionally gripping.

I have a theory about literature. Fiction is usually designed to be emotionally interesting, and non-fiction is intellectually interesting. They can be put on a continuum, with intense emotional experiences like romance novels at one extreme, and dry intellectual material like textbooks at the other. But the continuum is not linear, it curves upward, the non-fiction end higher than the fiction. That is because to be gripped emotionally is relatively easy, while intellectual involvement requires a greater degree of maturity and discipline. A little kid sobbing over Bambi's fate is deeply involved in an emotional way, but as she grows and learns and matures she'll start to seek out the mental stimulation that comes with less fictional material.

Back to Longitude. The appalling maltreatment of Harrison and his inventions at the hands of the Board of Longitude does not excite in me as much sympathy and righteous outrage as does the similar story of Celia Payne in E=mc2. That's my intellectual snobbery again: Payne was having her doctoral thesis rubbished; Harrison was merely failing to get recognition for his wonderful clocks. It seems to me that Payne was in a vastly more unjust situation, especially as Harrison was after mere monetary rewards.

But I'll tell you what, I now understand the importance of Greenwich Mean Time in navigation far better. And why distances on the surface of the Earth are measured in degrees. Also, I never really understood how many sailors died just because they used to know how far up the globe they were, but not how far around. It's actually rather astounding.

 

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