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    Re: Nevil Maskelyne.
    From: George Huxtable
    Date: 2004 Jul 14, 21:17 +0100

    Frank reed quoted-
    >George H wrote:
    >"He was vilified by Sobel, in her book "Longitude"."
    and responded-
    >Vilified? That may be too strong.
    Frank and I will have to agree to disagree on that point.
    On this list, we've discussed the Sobel book before, in some detail. But I
    am prepared to rehearse a few of the arguments.
    It's a historical romance, and as such requires a hero (Harrison) and a
    villain (Maskelyne). Every action of Maskelyne's is portrayed in the most
    unfavourable light.
    It attempts to explain a highly-technical subject to the lay reader without
    the aid of explanatory diagrams. As a result, that reader is likely to
    emerge without really understanding much more about the determination of
    longitude than when he went in. That's the same restriction as is imposed
    on us in our contributions to to Nav-L, and we find it very hampering to be
    forced to explain matters in words rather than pictures. A book-author
    should be free to explain matters using diagrams, but Sobel chose not to.
    On page 11 and elsewhere (in my 1995 edition), Sobel attributes the
    destruction of Shovell's fleet on the Scillies to a failure in longitude.
    Nothing could be further from the facts. Shovell had successfully passed
    Westward of Ushant, intending to turn East up the English Channel when he
    reached a suitable latitude. Instead, he travelled way too far to the
    North, so causing his disastrous impact with Scilly. It was a failure of
    latitude, not of longitude. The weather had been thick for several days, so
    no information had been available from celestial observations. The
    chronometer had not ben invented then (in 1707) but if Shovell had carried
    a perfect timepiece it would have been of no help whatsoever, without any
    view of the sky.
    Where Shovell was inexcusably remiss, in such dirty weather, was in not
    taking soundings, which would have told him when to turn to port, at the
    deepest part of the approaches to the English Channel.
    On page 5 she says-
    "Precise measurement of the hour in two different places at once- a
    longitude prerequisite today so easily accessible today from any pair of
    cheap wristwatches ..."
    But of course what's essential is a celestial time-sight of some sky body
    to determine local time: a wristwatch nequires such an observation to set
    On page 22, Sobel appears to think that noon is the appropriate moment to
    determine local time, but as we have recently discussed at some length on
    this list, it is in fact the worst possible moment in the day to try to do
    On page 98, Sobel refers to parallax in terms of the height of the observer
    above sea level, and appears not to appreciate the difference between
    parallax and dip.
    So my conclusion is that Sobel didn't really understand what she was
    writing about. That's not surprising, as she is a journalist, and it shows.
    So I agree with Frank's assessment of the book as a great "beach read".
    Entertaining, but no more than that. And misleading.
    Frank concludes-
    >Of Maskelyne's final resting place, George H wrote:
    >"Not much to report back, of course, just a stone tomb in the churchyard
    >shaded by a great gnarled yew, and a Latin plaque inside the old church. "
    >Can you get a picture of that spot with the Moon rising over it? :-) Or is it
    >surrounded by modern apartment buildings...
    No, sorry, didn't take my camera. Perhaps next time.
    But I'm pleased Frank asked that question, which gives me an opportunity to
    spout a bit more about that location, which is quite a remarkable spot.
    No it's not "surrounded by modern apartment buildings"; quite the reverse,
    indeed. The suburbs of expanding Swindon remain over the next hill and a
    bit, so are quite out of sight and out of mind.
    Many parish churches are now in the centre of a busy village which has
    grown up around them. This one is different. The village of Purton has
    migrated away to be on the old turnpike road, half a mile away, and the
    church is now isolated in a quiet corner, between an immense mediaeval
    tithe barn and the old manor house, all built in stone like the church.
    Large parts of the church date back to the 1200s, but overall it's a
    mixture of eras and styles. All in all, it's a most beautiful assembly of
    buidings, in a really peaceful setting, for old Maskelyne's bones to rot
    away in. No sign of any tourist presence, but it provides the archetypal
    image of rural England that many Americans come here to see, and offers all
    that anyone could ask for. Many churches are nowadays locked up outside
    Sundays, but not this one, pleased to say.
    Even for those immune to Maskelyne's charms, it would make a pleasant day out.
    contact George Huxtable by email at george@huxtable.u-net.com, by phone at
    01865 820222 (from outside UK, +44 1865 820222), or by mail at 1 Sandy
    Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5HX, UK.

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