Monday, July 7, 2008

Book Review: Longitude

Dava Sobel is good at telling scientific stories. This particular one may have been her breakthrough, and it's a good one, about John Harrison's 18th-century quest to build a clock that would keep time accurately on board a ship. Why this was important, and why it was hard, and why at times it seemed that the entire scientific establishment was against it, are all covered colorfully and efficiently in this book.

When I was in Westminster Abbey leaving a Sunday service a few weeks ago (and you know there's only a few times in my life when I'll be able to use that introductory phrase), I looked down and saw a memorial to John Harrison in the stones under my feet. A gold line was etched on that stone, with the exact longitude of that position. The integration of science with that building of faith is one of my favorite things about the U.K. I was just a few steps away from Isaac Newton, to boot.

Sobel's account occasionaly omits part of the human story. I completely missed how and when Harrison passed away, for instance. But she makes the best of a complex situation and a somewhat opaque main character, and so I recommend this book.

The "Lone Genius" of the title is what gets me thinking about broader implications. Harrison did have to fight against a lot of institutional barriers. The lunar-calculation method promoted by the establishment wasn't really wrong, it was just unwieldy. That groupthink stood in his way for about 50 years of unnecessary testing and refinement. Once sailors had a chance to use Harrison's clocks or the establishment's tables, they quickly chose Harrison's clocks.

Try as I might I can't find a close parallel to this situation in current science. If I did I could make some money off it. How and where is the "establishment" wrong? When is someone a lone genius or just a quack? As an American, I can say we're all born and bred to think of ourselves as potential "lone geniuses" (or, failing that, potential American Idol winners). But the proof is in the pudding, to continue the British metaphors. Lone geniuses are few and far between. The freedom to communicate and sell your stuff is crucial to letting lone geniuses succeed -- but it sure does lead to a lot of "noise" in the signal of all sorts of people who think they're lone geniuses but are really just lone.

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