June Books 46) Longitude 47) Fatal Attraction

46) Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel
47) Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment, by Patricia Fara

Back to my former intellectual stamping ground, the history of science. Both of these books are for a popular rather than academic audience; Fara’s perhaps more didactic (she is a historian of science), Sobel’s more for entertainment (she is a journalist).

Sobel’s book is the more old-fashioned. It is a simple biography of John Harrison and his efforts to build a practical chronometer for the purpose of calculating longitude. We get a great deal about the bureaucratic politics which Harrison had to deal with, at one point invoking King George III directly on his own behalf. It is an interesting enough tale, told well; Sobel succeeds in making the 18th century personalities appear just like us.

Having said that, I was not completely satisfied. Sobel’s heroic portrait of Harrison makes little reference to religion and almost none to the wider impact of the longitude question on politics and vice versa; it is ‘Whiggish’ in that the “solution of the greatest scientific problem of his time” is presented as both desirable and ultimately inevitable. It is entertaining enough but not especially profound.

I got my historical training in the same place that Fara teaches (she is now the senior tutor of the Cambridge college I attended, and lectures in the department where I got my M Phil). Fara explores the eighteenth century not as a time like ours but as an alien culture which needs to be explained and unpacked, and does this through three key characters in the history of the understanding of magnetism: Edmund Halley (who also plays an important role in the earlier chapters of Sobel’s book), Gowin Knight (who ended up truculently running the British Museum) and Franz Mesmer (as in mesmerism).

I found this much more satisfying, though would have welcomed even more speculation on what Mesmer was Really Up To. Her section on Knight and his ascent to success on the basis of beautifully designed but functionally useless nautical compasses contains far more about the politics of longitude – both the internal British tension between gentlemen and practitioners, and the colonial purpose of the endeavour – than does Sobel’s book. The book does feel somewhat incomplete, but it is apparently purposely designed as one of a set of four – matching a similar volume also by Fara on electricity in the eighteenth century, and also books by Stephen Pumfrey on the seventeenth century and Iwan Morus on the nineteenth. Must look out for those.

One thought on “June Books 46) Longitude 47) Fatal Attraction

  1. Is it one of those great spectacularly weird exemplar sentences you learn in language lessons?

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