Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unrecognized Genius

This is a story about one of the greatest geniuses in history, whose name you (most probably) never heard before.

John Harrison approached the biggest problem in his generation: finding the longitude of a ship in the middle of the ocean.

Unlike today, when every $200 GPS will tell you where you are, with no more than a 1 meter error factor, no more than 2 centuries ago, ship captains couldn't calculate their exact locations and had to rely on star observations (hard to do on a stormy voyage) and arcane traditions to discern their longitude.

Several major disasters occurred, and trade and seamanship where limited to near-shorelines traffic (causing many fights on trade routes between seagoing nations).

It gotten to a point where huge sums of money were offered to the first person to offer a tried-and-true method to calculate the longitude in mid-ocean. Many grand scientists (chief amongst them is Sir Isaac Newton) took a shot at this problem, to various degrees of failure.

The book I'd like to recommend is Longitude: The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time by Dava Sobel (as always, there's a link in the Amazon applet).

The book traces the roots of a problem, describing the historical and political situations and the reasons that drove nations to offer, cajole, and spy to get the solution to the greatest problem of their time. It describes the efforts of scientists, ordinary people and charlatans to solve this greatest of problems.

It also describes the life and efforts of John Harrison, the unrecognized genius, who indeed solved the problem, but got no prize or recognition - due to him not being "connected" enough, and not a good business man at all. His "sin"? Trying to solve the problem using "earthly" mechanical ways, rather than using the "divine" star observation methods.

You'll thrill at the trials and tribulations Harrison goes through with his invention. You'll sigh a "no you didn't!" when Harrison inadvertently reveals his secrets to competitors, without signing them to an NDA, and you'll fume when his opponents resort to dirty tactics to discredit his life's work and achievements.

All is documented in a clear, friendly language. The writer does her best to understand where and how events took place. She gives equal treatments to the "good" and "bad" people in the story, painting them all as people driven by existing knowledge and convictions, rather than malice.

This book is highly readable. It's concise (I finished it during one transatlantic flight) and will leave you wanting to learn more about the characters, the history and the mechanical genius creations of Harrison.

As for me, next time I'm in England (and have spare time), I'll take a day trip to Greenwich, to see the Royal Observatory (where GMT is measured daily) and Flamsteed House, where even today - almost 300 years later, Harrison's timekeepers still show the right time.

And as a last parting shot, the writer describes how the idea to write the book came to her while looking at the statue of Atlas holding the globe, on 5th Avenue in New York. For the benefit of those who didn't have the pleasure, here's a photo I took last Thanksgiving:

The photo at the top of the post is of Harrison's first prototype, the "H1". And here's a site that'll take you through a 3D tour of this marvelous creation.

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