by hector

Dava Sobel’s Longitude is that paradoxical thing: a science book that sells.   Even more remarkable, it is not even a modern science book.   On the face of it, an account of how a Yorkshireman designed a clock that was a few seconds more accurate per day than the existing best model is an unlikely premise for a bestseller.   And yet Longitude absolutely deserves its success for three simple reasons: it is colourful, it is compelling, and – essential in a popular science book – it is clear.

 From the start, Longitude is highly readable, striking a good balance between fact and entertaining anecdote.   Although there is a rather overwhelming roster of distinguished names from the past for so slim a volume, the science is always comprehensible and relevant.   Sobel is as at ease with the complexities of astronomical inquiry as with the intricacies of mechanical design, and she draws in popular culture, political wrangling and good, patient science to illustrate her tale.   Moreover, she ably captures the contemporary excitement of the great international quest for a method to determine longitude, and conveys the daunting challenge of the project to create a sufficiently precise timepiece.

But above all, Longitude is a human story, and Sobel powerfully positions her hero John Harrison as the rural innocent who overcomes all the odds through a lifetime of endeavour to achieve what the learned urban establishment could not.   And that is both the book’s greatest appeal and its potential weak spot.   “A story that hails a hero must also hiss at a villain,” writes Sobel, and for her villain she chooses the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal and father of the still-published Nautical Almanac.  

Whether Maskelyne was really as venomously set on confounding Harrison through fair means or foul as Sobel suggests is hard to establish from this historical remove.   What is certain is that the Nautical Almanac has been the essential companion to sailors all over the world ever since, and was the only means of determining longitude for many decades until affordable chronometers became available.   Undoubtedly Maskelyne’s devoted labours kept many a ship off the rocks and saved countless sailors’ lives.   For that, if for nothing else, he deserves kinder treatment than he receives here.

Partisanship aside, Sobel’s book is a joy to read for its engaging style and unassuming erudition.   Her loving descriptions of Harrison’s clocks verge on the poetic.   There could be no better memorial to one of the great inventors.


Entertainment Weekly: "Beautifully written"

Newsweek: "Intricate and elegant...No novelist could improve on the elements of Dava Sobel's Longtitude"

The New York Times: "This is a gem of a book"

Financial Times: "Dava Sobel has written a gem of a of the best reads for the non-scientific writing to come along for many a moon"

Daily Mail: "A true life thriller, jam-packed with political intrigue, international warfare, personal feuds and financial skullduggery"

Daily Telegraph: "Rarely have I enjoyed a book as much as Dava Sobel's Longitude. She has an extraordinary gift of making difficult ideas clear"

Simon Singh, author of Fermat's Last Theorem: "one of the most exciting tales in the history of engineering"

Patrick O'Brian, author of  Master and Commander: "The marine chronometer is a glorious and fascinating object and its explanation calls for a writer as skilled with words as the watchmakers were with their tools: happily just such a writer can be found in Dava Sobel." "the engrossing story of the clockmaker, John "Longitude" Harrison, who solved the problem that Newton and Galileo had failed to conquer" " with evident passion for the subject, Dava Sobel has created a small treasure" "A fascinating story and well told"