Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Genius and Obsession

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel


The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

Simon Winchester

In the past several weeks I have had the pleasure to read both of these excellent popular science books, and I was struck by the similarity in the stories. The time periods and individual breakthroughs achieved could not have been more different, but the difficulties encountered and the temperaments of the two individuals, John Harrison and William Smith, were quite similar.

In the late 1600's one of the greatest problems for science and commerce was longitude. Determining latitude, or how far north and south a sailing ship is was done quite easily using the sun and stars, but longitude, or how far east or west, was considerably more difficult. The problem for shipping was so severe, that in 1714 the English Parliament offered a "Longitude Prize" to the first person or persons who demonstrated a way to accurately determine one's longitude at sea.

Between 1730 and 1770 John Harrison battled technology, opposing theories, a hostile Longitude board, and his own perfectionism in the search for a clock that could keep accurate time at sea. This is much more difficult than we might suppose, being he had to contend with temperature variations, the rocking of the ships, and fluctuations in humidity. His designs were years ahead of their time, and he perfected some methods that are still in use today.

Sobel's prose is perfect, and her tale is very compelling. The story is littered with interesting people, like Sir Issac Newton, and fascinating facts, like the way we discovered the speed of light. One of the opposing longitude methods was timing the eclipses of Jupiter's moons, but the actual eclipse times kept varying from the predicted times. One man figured out that the difference was because light had a speed, and when Jupiter was on the far point of its orbit, it simply took a little longer for the light to arrive.

We go now from outer space and clock making to geology fieldwork and walking, lots of walking. William Smith was, like Harrison a tradesman, and not nobly born. Rather than a clockmaker, Smith was a surveyor, born in 1769. He was an expert on canal placement, drainage, and mining. It was his explorations deep under the earth in Southern England's coal mines that he discovered that the same rocks appeared in the same order, a thought that had occurred to no one else. He soon noticed one other thing, that while two rocks may look the same, the fossils in each formation were different, and could be used to tell the rocks apart.

Armed with this knowledge, Smith crisscrossed England, charting outcroppings, collecting fossils, and putting many miles on his shoes. While his efforts produced a beautiful, and essentially accurate, geologic map of England, the first of its kind anywhere, his profligate spending landed him in debtors prison, and enemies plagiarized his work. Luckily, Smith did receive due recognition, but it took decades.

As always Winchester layers in tons of details and facts, his book is considerably longer and more footnoted than Longitude. However, the story of Smith's rise, fall, and redemption reads like a fine play or novel, except that its all true.

Both Harrison and Smith were ahead of their time, and both sacrificed decades of their lives in their obsessive quests. One for a clock that wouldn't lose two seconds of time on a voyage that left normal clocks gaining and losing minutes a day and the other on a map of an entire unseen world. Both books provide a glimpse of England in an era of profound change. From farming and pastoral life to a life of commerce, mining, industry and science. I highly recommend both books, but if you are looking for a shorter, quicker read, than Longitude is the better. For those who enjoy a more in depth treatment, or who adore Geology as much as I do, then The Map That Changed the World is also a worthy read.

1 comment:

Zach said...

Wow, I knew Will Smith had mastered the world of Hip Hop but I had no idea he was also famous for rock.