Book Review : ‘Longitude’

I bought this book at 5 PM on a lazy Saturday afternoon at a charity bookstore in Kilburn Park. At 1 AM I was checking with my wife  if she minded the bedroom light I was reading this by. If she did I said I’ll go to the kitchen. Because there was no way I was going to bed without finishing the book. I finished the book at 2 AM.

Yes. It is THAT good and gripping. Dava Sobel has done a very good job on the story. The book I nominated as the best I read in 2012 was read furtively over many late nights but Longitude is on a league of its own. I have read best selling fictional spy thrillers where I was yawning at the climax scene. This book actually fits the cliched description ‘Unputdownable’. Best 2 pounds I ever spent at a charity shop too. To those disinclined to read….ewwww…”books!” : Please. This book is a short, almost breezy, 175 pages. 3 days of easy trundle and you are done. To the hardcore bibliophiles : 12 hours on the outside of a lazy rainy day if you take long meal breaks.

“Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time”  by Dava Sobel

What in this book is so compelling ? What is it about ? Here is the short Amazon summary:

Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that “the longitude problem” was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day–and had been for centuries.  Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land.  Thousands of lives and the increasing fortunes of nations hung on a resolution.  One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution–a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land.  Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of Harrison’s forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer.  Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.

Here is the total kicker that I did not know until last night but thank to the curiosity provoked by this book I now do: A prime meridian is a meridian, i.e. a line of longitude, at which longitude is defined to be 0°. This great circle divides the sphere, e.g. the Earth, into two hemispheres. I live a 90 second walk from the prime meridian!!!. I feel akin to a devout christian who finds out by serendipity that he lives 90 seconds away from the barn where Jesus was born. #MINDBLOWN

This is the kind of book that once again does well what our dry boring schooling failed to do but had an obligation to : Make history, geography and science alive and interesting, Because as Longitude proves… they all were! I am so fascinated by all the little facts and details in the book that I am today taking advantage of the fact that I live about an hour from the famed Royal Observatory here in London (which played a major role in the book and is best known as THE location of the prime meridian) and so I am going to the hill in Greenwich Park to  see some of the instruments mentioned in the book. Also John Harrison. What a man. We all need to know about this genius. His story needs to be spread. A carpenter who changed the world. That is pretty much this book in a nutshell.

Go to Flipkart/Amazon, buy it and it just may be the best thing you read in a long while.


2 thoughts on “Book Review : ‘Longitude’

  1. All perfectly true; the real story of Longitude lies in the loss of men and the diminishing stock of timber required to build ships. Without that stock, Britain was unable to project influence abroad. The Amiralty of the day was probably more concerned with this than the loss of men, even though this alone was a guarantee of employment in the navy during Harrison’s time.
    The events surrounding this story also intertwine with a transition to coal from wood for the provision of domestic heating, which took the pressure off the available timber stocks needed for ship construction.
    Not only was timber required for naval vessels, the East India Company was also making large demands upon that same stock and so the solution to the longitude problem was really a story of the conservation of forest timber, so necessary for trade and the protection of it.
    Harrison, having won the prize, then became involved in sourcing and marking timber for the admiralty and ensuring that this would be available.
    As a footnote, the New Forest is close to Buckler’s Hard, a slipway where a lot of Nelson’s ships were built. The older forest was completely cleared for vessel construction.

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