Sobel and William J. Andrews
subtitle for this book is, “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the
Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”
It is the story of how John Harrison, who trained as a carpenter but
became fascinated by clocks, almost single-handedly solved the problem of
determining longitude at sea by creating precision time-keeping instruments more
accurate than many believed possible.
note contains my personal reactions to to the book, and some thoughts on its implications
the book. But, why?
And why did a text that is primarily about an individual who was somewhat
of a recluse, who left little in the way of insight about his personal life, and
who had almost been forgotten, become a national best-seller?
course, it is well written. Ms.
Sobel produced a marvelously readable book.
That said, what she wrote so well about includes:
The perils of
sea travel from the 15th through the 18th centuries.
How frustrating it must have been, with supplies running low and sickness
often overtaking the crew, for a captain to know he was at the right latitude
for the port he so desperately sought, but, not knowing for certain his
longitude, to have to guess as to whether to go east or west!
The human mind
and the many casts of its abilities. Mr.
Harrison was brilliant at complexity and invention.
He created new, complex mechanical and metallic solutions to baffling
problems through inventiveness and careful research.
But, apparently, his mind ran so much to complexity that he could not
write a readable description of what he did!
In one published piece, his first sentence continues for 23 pages!
Is there something in this that should make us thoughtful about our
current scheme of high-stakes tests in multiple subjects?
The progress of
science. So many discoveries,
including the speed of light, were made as a result of the careful study of the
heavens that was funded out of a hope for a solution to the problem of
of character. Some of the players in
the story of longitude were men of good will and integrity.
George Graham, for example, the leading clockmaker in
The impact of
happenstance. Maskelyne, however,
was a competent and diligent astronomer. He
continued careful work that had been begun before him in observing the
regularity of astronomical events, and published tables based on the time of
these events at the Royal Observatory in
are other interesting tidbits in this history, including the trials of
timekeepers on the H.M.S. Beagle,
whose young naturalist was Charles Darwin, the involvement of one key piece on
the Bounty under Captain Bligh, and
their use by Captain Cook in his famous journeys.
King George III, (yes, the one against whom the American colonists
rebelled) was greatly interested in science and became personally involved in
At 210 pages,
this book is much lighter than most of the badly-written, often-inaccurate, and
mostly boring textbooks we spend a great deal of money purchasing.
Students reading it, however, might well learn more of history, science,
writing, geography, and psychology than they ever pick up from textbooks.
Learning to read is important, but actually reading, and reading in
quantity, is key to learning. And reading
in quantity requires books such as this to be available in libraries and an
option in the curriculum.
of the Dixie
Chapter of the National
Association of Watch and Clock Collectors is listed as Keneth Penkal of
Who would work
with Mr. Penkal on designing such work? An
interested teacher or teachers. But
they have to have time to do so, and a
structure to support such teacher-led instructional improvement would help.
Sobel, former science writer for the New
York Times, published the text in 1995. Dr. Wheatland, Curator of the
Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at