Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Pursuit of the Impossible

Take a look around. Everything that surrounds us -- except nature -- was created, invented by humans. The computer, calculator, oven, microwave, fork, knife, spoon, table, chair, everything solves a problem and eases (and sometimes complicates) our lives. Even the way that we understand the world had to be discovered and named by us like the periodic table of elements, the theory of relativity, latitude and longitude.

Latitude and longitude. Two very important imaginary sets of lines that encircle our globe and provide us with the wonders of GPS navigation. Latitude is marked by the stars, but longitude was once much more difficult to pinpoint. Dava Sobel’s fantastic biography, Longitude: The Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, reveals how John Harrison managed to discover how to determine longitude at sea without any training or significant formal education and in doing so saved millions of lives.

The story:
John Harrison was a modest man, a perfectionist to the core, whose mechanically inclined mind found his life’s greatest challenge in determining how to find longitude at sea with the use of a clock (an accurate clock! This was a time when most clocks lost 15 minutes or more a day) that had no pendulum. This problem was costing the empires of the world millions in lost cargos from sunk ships from the colonies, as well as many lives. In order to assuage this terrible and embarrassing loss, England’s Parliament set a reward. £20,000 to the one who could determine how to find longitude at sea within a half-degree, a nearly impossible task that quickly became a euphemism for the impossible.

A message from the story:
Accept praise when you earn it! If John Harrison had just allowed himself to accept the prize immediately, his political problems would have been avoided and he would not have needed to worry about others stealing his ideas. He could still have worked on improvements and perfected his chronometer, just without all the stress of having to vie against other options that arose during the time he took to tinker with and improve his machine through five stages.

What was wonderful:
This book was great fun to read. I enjoyed tracing the life of the brilliant man who at once solved the problem and then allowed his perfectionism to get in the way of claiming the prize for many years. The political intrigue, competition and life-and-death urgency of the issue was fascinating. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter delighted me and drew my curiosity deeper into the story. I especially loved the one from Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” that referenced John Harrison and his incredible ability to build clocks. Dava Sobel wrote in a highly accessible fashion that would draw in all readers who like history – including middle school and high school students.

To improve:
I would have liked to see quotes from primary sources that might have allowed us to see Harrison and his story more clearly. Since this is a biography, I would have liked to see more pictures. It would have been nice to include a full-page picture of all his creations that are currently at museums. I would like to have been able to examine the detail of his beautiful work.


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book - right up my alley! Did it go into detail regarding the scientific processes he used, or was it more character driven?

  2. It was more of a biography of the process, since not much is known about the man himself. A lot of it was focused on the political and societal changes of the time to show the importance of discovering how to read longitude from the ocean, and why the cumbersome method of using the stars was popular before the time telling method. It is a good book. I think you'd like it.