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    Re: Longitude Forged
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2008 Dec 5, 11:20 -0800

    Peter Smith, you wrote of an article by Pat Rogers, an English professor and 
    literary scholar from the University of Florida:
      "The Times Literary Supplement of 12 Nov has an article that should be of 
    interest: 'Longitude Forged: How an eighteenth-century hoax has taken in Dava 
    Sobel and other historians'.
    Ms. Sobel's status as an 'historian' aside, the article describes one Jeremy 
    Thacker's 1714 pamphlet 'The Longitudes Examin'd', cited by several 19th and 
    20th century writers, but here exposed as a very elaborate joke."
    Thank you for pointing this out. 
    In fact, the Thacker pamphlet is very funny! That's nothing new. I recommend 
    it to anyone interested in this sort of history. The pamphlet may well be a 
    hoax in the sense that there was no "Thacker" and I think Rogers has made a 
    very good case for that, but it was not a hoax in the sense of having conned 
    the scientific community (small club that it was in 1714). The scientific 
    suggestions are relatively sophisticated and not mere jokes. A few can be 
    read with real interest even today. Meanwhile, the satire is obvious and not 
    intended to evoke an intolerant reaction or deceive a careless reader, as 
    would be more typical of a hoax (see PS). 
    For an example of a scientific point that is interesting even today, consider 
    the proposal advanced by one Isaac Hawkins to determine longitude by 
    measuring the height of the tides using some advanced form of barometer (and 
    then looking up the longitude for that tide height at that local time). This 
    proposal fails, and fails completely, for two reasons. First, the pattern of 
    the tides on the ocean is much more complicated than anyone could have 
    guessed back in 1714. There was no simple "look-up table" that could have 
    been constructed, but the complexity of the problem was unknown at that time, 
    and it would not have been an a priori objection. Second, and more 
    importantly, even significantly improved barometers could not have detected 
    changes in barometric pressure resulting from a change in altitude of a few 
    meters at most. But the Thacker pamphlet, in addition to reviewing the 
    Hawkins idea (along with the others published during the year), goes on to 
    complain that the change in barometric pressure on the top of a high tide in 
    the ocean could not be detected because there are tides in the atmosphere and 
    these would cancel out any pressure changes above ocean tides. That's a 
    genuinely interesting issue in physics; nothing "hoaxy" about it. It's wrong 
    physics when you work out the details -- the atmospheric tides do not follow 
    the ocean tides in spatial pattern or in time, but it is not obviously wrong.
    As for satire, the Thacker pamphlet dives right in. The author explains that 
    he's going to have to poke holes in the works of others because, well, he 
    must. You see, it's the only way he'll be able to fill out the pages of a 
    "six-penny book" (a fixed size of publication). And as noted by Rogers, the 
    author is actually hilarious when he describes his motivations: "If it be 
    asked why I wrote the book at all, I'll frankly answer, That I Wanted Money. 
    [the latter phrase in italics]" So why isn't the Thacker pamphlet known 
    better as satire? Rogers apparently thinks it's because historians of science 
    have not yet jumped on the bandwagon wherein literary criticism is the center 
    of the universe. Maybe. Rogers is an English professor of that "school" so 
    dominant for the past few decades. But I think it's more likely that the 
    Thacker pamphlet simply isn't very important as a scientific document. It's 
    fun reading, yes, but its only lasting contribution to the history of science 
    is its accidental word coinage that became standard a hundred years later. 
    For that author in 1714, "chronometer" was a joke, intended as a parody of 
    other coinages built from Greek roots. But times and fashions change, and 
    "chronometer," to us, seems normal and so much more sophisticated than "sea 
    clock" or "time-keeper" which were the plain-speaking names used for such 
    instruments in the latter half of the 18th century.
    One thing worth repeating: this was an era of scathing satire. Whiston and 
    Ditton, the original applicants for the Longitude Prize (less than a year 
    before the Thacker pamphlet), were mocked endlessly for their scheme, and 
    many modern historians of navigation repeat the mockery. Yet it would have 
    worked in a limited fashion, for example at the entrance to the Channel where 
    ships and whole fleets had been lost. Their proposal was not quackery. 
    Instead of noting the impossibility of applying this method across the wide 
    oceans and moving on, their detractors were merciless and there was even a 
    little song about them. The refrain is "Let Whiston and Ditton, be pissed-on, 
    be shit-on." ...Ouch! Manners come and go.
    PS: For examples that qualify as hoaxes, see e.g. 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair, or, more recently, you might enjoy 
    this hoax:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/arts/television/13hoax.html

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