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    Re: Powder of Sympathy
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2013 Apr 6, 13:07 -0700


    I have long defended Dava Sobel's book. It's great prose, extremely well-written. It hits all the high points and an amazing amount of minor detail, too. I especially recommend "The Illustrated Longitude" which includes numerous brief essays that greatly add to the content of the book. There's plenty to be learned in "Longitude", and there's remotely nothing like it as an introduction to the basic concepts of navigation for laypeople. It is a work of "popular science" rather than scholarship, which disappoints some readers who are expecting an academic work, but that's not a problem with Sobel's book --it's a problem with expectations. Nonetheless, "Longitude" does have some weaknesses.

    The opening story in "Longitude" about the colossal tragedy of the loss of the "Association" and the rest of Cloudesley Shovell's fleet on the Scillies continues to bother some readers because the relevance to longitude is indirect. It was cited as a pivotal event in the history of the longitude problem for at least 50 years, but that's somewhat misleading (Sobel didn't event this approach. She was simply repeating the "party line"). Also, there are quite a few legendary elements in the story that were added over the course of 200 years. And like all legends, some elements are true despite being improbable, some elements are almost certainly not true, and many elements are undecidable. Because of all these issues, the wreck on the Scillies is one of those stories that tends to invite simplistic revisionism: "it wasn't longitude --it was latitude!". But it was considered a "longitude" problem soon after it occurred. The disaster was directly tied to the longitude problem during the debate leading up to the act of 1714 itself. In many ways, this was a "bait and switch" by the young scientific community in early 18th century England since the disaster was a complex event probably involving several compounding errors, like most disasters. It wasn't a clear-cut example of a failure to determine longitude.

    Sobel's book also lacks details on the clocks themselves. Many readers reach the end of the book scratching their heads wondering just what it was that Harrison invented, from a technical point of view. As an antidote for that, I recommend a little book called "Harrison" by Jonathan Betts, sold by the National Maritime Museum. It's an excellent supplement to "Longitude".

    I think it's widely agreed by people who know the history of navigation that the biggest flaw with "Longitude" is the dismissal of the lunar method and, far worse, the near character-assassination of Nevil Maskelyne. There were partisans, in the modern sense, on both sides in the late 18th century and even more so a few decades later. There were those who stood by Harrison and attacked Maskelyne mercilessly. And there were those who found Harrison ridiculous and considered his son a vulgar fool. Sobel fell in line with the partisans of John Harrison and presented an unbalanced story. She chose to tell a story of a "hero" rather than tell the more complex and less appealing story of difficult human beings on both sides of the battle. Sobel did correctly describe Harrison as a bit of a flake, a terrible communicator, and above all his own worst enemy. But his flaws are still minimized and the attitude toward technology in that era is misleading and anachronistic. Harrison's time-keeper was the first "black box" technology of modern history, and reasonable people were highly skeptical of it.

    Some of the stories of the wilder notions presented as solutions to the problem of longitude were parodies, satires. Satire was a fine art in the 18th century! The proposed solutions were also frequently the output of self-publication in a period when common people (of the early middle class with somewhat above average financial resources) could print pamphlets which could find broad readership even if the ideas were quite bizarre. The "weird" got attention out of all proportion to its significance. Sobel has folded many of these astronomically and scientifically ignorant ideas into the story of the Board of Longitude since it's a bit more fun to imagine a "team of scholars" reviewing crazy proposals one after another. But almost none of this happened. The board did not meet to discuss these proposals. There was no law that required them to review every proposal, and most were simply ignored.

    The "powder of sympathy" is a more extreme case of a "wild idea". It was a literary device, never a serious proposal and not even a "crazy" proposal. It was a parody of the quest for longitude. Sobel included it, so I have heard, because she couldn't resist such a lurid concept. It's clearly memorable, and it does a nice job cementing the concept of absolute time in the reader's mind. If there existed some organism on Earth that communicated by radio signals, which is not impossible in principle, then something like this might have really worked. Everybody loves dogs, and it is a cliche that a play with a dog in it wins the audience's attention. The idea of torturing dogs for the sake of global navigation fires up the brain, activating the recording circuits of memory. Nobody wants to see "man's best friend" get kicked. Our empathy focuses our attention on any such story. But what if it was some species for which we have no empathy? If some species of colonial mollusk had such an ability to send an alarm signal at the speed of light over thousands of miles, I doubt that there would be any outcry over crushing a few clams every three hours. ..."Captain, the clams have just snapped close. It is now 1800 Greenwich Time." And over the course of the next century, before true electromagnetic "radio" signalling was developed, the system might have been fine-tuned for other signalling purposes... Morse code by the clatter of clam shells.


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