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    Re: Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal
    From: David Pike
    Date: 2020 Mar 24, 14:16 -0700

    Frank reed you wrote:  Here's a question to ponder: why does this book exist? I'm not asking why its content exists. It's all great scholarship, but it's about a relatively minor figure in 18th-century science. Rather, I'm asking why does this physical book exist? Why was this book, summarizing as it does a minor one-day symposium, exist as a trade hardcover book that you can buy on amazon (and for a while also appeared in general-market bookstores)? It's a historiography and a publishing-industry question.

    And of course it's tied to the colossal financial success of Dava Sobel's Longitude which was published a quarter-century ago in 1995. From various perspectives, the time seemed ripe, not merely to un-do Sobel's over-the-top "villain" declaration, but to ride the revisionist surf up the beach and re-write Maskelyne as a freaking hero! That is the only alternative to villain, right? 

    Finally, let's step back. Who created the tale, legend, even myth of Harrison vs Maskelyne as it stood in 1994, in the pre-Sobel era? It certainly wasn't Sobel (and if you think it was, you're wrong!). She researched it as a journalist, interviewing professional historians (and astronomers with historical notions) and repeated what she learned from her interviews. She elaborated only slightly, adding her vote of solidarity to the Harrison family's point-of-view historically. But Maskelyne and his ridiculous "lunars" had been counted for decades as the enemies of practical navigation in simplistic histories. How did that come about? There's another bit of historiography to contemplate.


    Where should one start?  There’s scope for a PhD here from a good historical scholar, but not from me who was best remembered at his alma mater as the boy who got 0/50 in the spelling test.  That’s an attempt at satire by the way, a bit I suspect like your “and his ridiculous lunars”.   

    What brings a story into prominence and a magnet for successive generations of authors?  It crops up all the time:  Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, Hooke and Newton, Bligh and Christian, Darwin and Fitzroy, Scott and Amundsen, and many more I’m sure.  Sometimes the pair barely knew each other or were the best of pals.  There must be many reasons why the story kicks off or one personality gains temporary ascendency over the other: a self-excusing  or promoting report by a survivor, a reply by the family of the other; the story picked up by a close relation of a collateral victim, and then latched onto by journalists; shyness or poor self-presentation by the one compared to ambition and verve of the other.  The fact is the reading public loves a bit of controversy, even if the truth is sometimes bent to produce a better story.  

    They also like an engaging and entertaining personality.  An attendant biographer e.g. Boswell on Johnson helps here. 

    Occasionally, the country needs heroes to turn the populations thoughts from a questionable military outcome into a victory of courage over adversity, e.g. the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the oft parodied “The boy stood on the burning deck”, and the story continues into history. Who first chooses the hero?   Can it oft be random? Invariably the act of bravery must be seen and reported by someone.  If the report is successful, a medal or award is given, frequently posthumously, memorials and funds might be set up, streets named, and latterly schools named after the hero, but what about the countless number of equally courageous engagements which aren’t seen or reported or are reported unsuccessfully?  Who can remember those?

    The story continues.  In another 50-100 years it’ll be interesting for those still around to observe what ‘woke’ has done to history.  In the end, there’s only one answer; it’s because life’s like that.  DaveP

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