Reading List: Longitude and How We Know

We think KNOWING is so easy that we approach the unknowable with suspicion. Longitude by Dava Sobel and William J.H. Andrews is a worthwhile read if only to challenge the certainty of our suppositions. Modern precision is grounded in countless struggles with imprecision.

Anyone who believes the modern world is a simple one should read Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Lucky for us, many of our modern luxuries make this historical puzzle of knowing your location an interesting story rather than a daily challenge. It’s as easy as an app on a smartphone, the right Google search string or clicking a city on a web-based map. Facebook, Twitter and other apps regularly ask for permission to share your location. Longitude reminds us this simple request is far from easy to make happen. The modern luxury is in having access to a daunting amount of information through simple tools and Sobel’s book takes us back to the point of origin for determining your coordinates.

The truth is that we encounter what is at least difficult to know or even unknowable more often than we realize. The book concludes with a short passage that captures how simple and familiar ideas help us believe we know something about the incomprehensible.

With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth—temporal—dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.

We recognize this idea of “testing the water,” but Sobel asks us to apply it to space-time. Few of us have any experience with space-time outside of our favorite Star Trek episode. We’ve never actually seen this temporal dimension but we can imagine it alongside the three-dimensions we know and the recognizable globe those dimensions draw for us. Distant stars had obscured our whereabouts for centuries until something as familiar as a pocket watch made it possible to know one’s location. What we know (the watch, three-dimensional space, and troubled waters) helps us understand what is unknowable (space-time, the fourth dimension and the systems of the universe).

Harrison's H-1

We regularly rely on our imagination to understand the world around us. Our preoccupation with using the simple tools of modern life while dismissing the complexity of their original proposition is dangerous. It threatens our understanding of how essential imagination is to the pursuit of knowledge and our ability to invent the very tools that have captured our attention. The GPS embedded in your car or your smartphone began with John Harrison’s first model for calculating longitude, the H-1. It weighed 75 pounds and sat in a 4ft. x 4ft. x 4ft.  cabinet. Accurate enough for the Longitude Board charged with granting the £20,000 award, the H-1 did not satisfy its inventor who had spent five years building it. Harrison knew it could be more precise. And more manageable. Solving the problem of longitude was not enough if the solution was impractical for sailors who needed this information while navigating the open sea. Knowing one’s longitude had alluded sailors and astronomers for hundreds of years, but Harrison seemed to believe finally knowing it was of little value without an easy way to access the data and calculate distance.

His designs continued to evolve until he presented the H-4 nearly 25 years later. The H-4, Harrison’s “sea watch,” finally put the precise measure of time in a device as simple as a pocket watch. The precise measure of longitude was not only knowable in 1760, it was finally easy to use.

The elements of Sobel’s narrative as she tells the longitude story sometimes appear more convenient than real. Longitude undoubtedly only skims the surface of the actual story, but the opportunity to think through the complicated nature of something considered to be so simple today makes the quick read worthwhile. The story makes the sophistication that accompanies innovation just a little more tangible.

It reminded me of a 20th century story of innovation too. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Isaacson reflects on a quote from the very first Apple brochure, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and remarks, “Jobs had aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them.

Sophisticated knowledge requires us to confront complexity too.

The American People and an Incredible Machine

With gadget fans across the country talking about the new 3G iPhone, it’s hard to argue about the innovative spirit of the American people. It’s a fact. We love our machines whether they’re speeding down the highways or probing the surface of Mars.

I wonder, however, if there’s more to this particular characteristic of the American people. Imagine you have just encountered the world’s greatest invention, what do you want to know about it?

What does it do?

How does it work?

Perhaps, where did the idea came from?

Now imagine the world’s greatest invention is the federal constitution proposed by James Madison. It may have looked like a Rube Goldberg machine to the AntiFederalists, unnecessarily complicated with too many opportunities for something to go wrong. As they review the many components of the system, the answer to “what does it do?” seems more and more obscure. The banner at the top of the Rube Goldberg page might even serve as a powerful AntiFederalist argument:

Imagine an AntiFederalist staring at this contraption. We know what we want it to do. We want it to protect our independence and protect our liberty. We know how to do this. We have several simple machines in our state constitutions doing exactly this. Why make it so complicated? It’s too much work and leaves the whole endeavor vulnerable with each new level of detail. It doesn’t have to be this hard!

Now, back to imagining the greatest invention in the world, would you be satisfied in simply knowing what it does? What almost always happens next? Someone makes a newer and better version. It is, after all, the iPhone 2.0 we’re all talking about and tech news regularly celebrates the next “iPhone killer.”

When acquainting ourselves with a new machine, few of us are ever satisfied with simply knowing what it does. We start there but next ask how it works and often inquire about the origin of the idea itself. We seek the “maker’s knowledge” Will referred to as he opened this week’s NEH seminar at Montpelier. The operating instructions often aren’t enough to satisfy our American ingenuity.

I’m thinking of a friend’s son who “pimped” his ride. An owner’s manual illustrating how to shift gears, turn dials, and light signals wasn’t useful for long. The Ford Explorer his parents had given him needed several improvements before he was willing to park it in the high school parking lot! He soon spent countless hours entangled in the car’s wiring, digging through the components of the engine, and super-sizing its performance in every way imaginable. If we know how an invention works and how it is constructed to do what it does, we have a system for evaluating its performance as well as a platform to improve upon it.

The American people aren’t simply interested in the invention. They’re a people interested in the ongoing progress of innovation and a people who believe we can all be a part of designing the next big thing.