I just finished a lovely little book called Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel (1995). Yes, the title is long, but it echoes the time about which Sobel writes, the 1700s.
The story is about the search for a reliable method of determining longitude. If you’re like me, you’ve never given a second thought to latitude or longitude: they just exist, like salt and pepper or Romeo and Juliet. Not so. While latitude was easily discernible by the daily track of the sun, longitude (the imaginary lines that separate the world into 24 equal slices from pole to pole) could not be reliably determined at sea until the development of an accurate timepiece, one that wasn’t affected by the pitch of the ship, the temperature, the level of humidity, etc.
With frequently beautiful language, Sobel describes why the world needed to be able to determine longitude, the often crazy ideas people proposed (and tested!) to determine it, and the great minds that competed with each other to figure out a reliable solution.
This isn’t the type of book that I usually read, especially since I have far from a mathematical bent of mind, but I was intrigued by a review that I read of it, and since we had it in the library, I bit. I’m glad I did. I thrilled to Sobel’s description of “God’s clockwork,” gasped in horror over the “wounded dog” theory, and exclaimed over the peculiar turns the story frequently takes. I forced my husband and son to listen as I read them excerpts from the book, and annoyed my husband with my gasps and murmurs over the parts I DIDN’T read to him. It definitely provoked discussion around here.
Although it’s older, I can highly recommend it for magpie minds like mine that like to take shiny bits of information and file them away.