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.

Citizen’s Conundrum: Dirt, Data and Digging Out

Now showing: “every utterance, every court filing, every public transaction, every burp, every miscue.”

In an interesting read, Jack Shafer wonders about the state of our politics “now that we have dirt on everyone.” While some debate the power of the Internet to democratize even the most authoritarian regimes, we should consider its role in making our politics dirtier than ever. Shafer describes the shift by comparing a campaign’s opposition research to mining for gold:

The past no longer matters to the political present the way it once did, because we have such better access to it today. Just 15 years ago, investigations of politicians and opposition research were largely limited to professionals with access to Lexis-Nexis or those who knew how to conduct a document search at the county courthouse. Digging dirt back then was like mining gold in the 1800s: labor intensive, and requiring both expertise and expensive tools. Widespread digitization and cheap information technologies haven’t eliminated the professionals from political dirt digging, only lowered the barriers to entry.

Leaping over those low barriers this cycle is Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year-old history major at St. John’s University, who quarried C-SPAN archives for political gotchas and posted more than 160 of them on his YouTube channel, alerting the press to the best, he tells me.

It isn’t just the dirt. We’re also awash in data or dirt masquerading as data. The information costs of a wold-be knowledgeable citizen are skyrocketing!

David Weinberger takes on this question from a scientific perspective in a book with a great title, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. He points to a scientist’s lament from 1963. That scientist, Bernard K. Forscher, titled his famous letter “Chaos in the Brickyard” and complained that science was churning out too many bricks (facts) without the ability “to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks.” Weinberger explains the problem today is much larger than Forscher could have imagined. Our brickyards are networked!

He offers three reasons today’s brickyards are galactic in scope and they’re worth considering in the context of political dirt. I’ll list them here but recommend visiting Weinberger’s post on The Atlantic for a more detailed discussion.

  1. The economics of deletion. Little data is ever discarded now that massive amounts of storage are easy and inexpensive.
  2. The economics of sharing. It’s easier than ever to share everything. From the 160 hours of video on YouTube mentioned earlier to terabytes of data.
  3. Computers are smarter. The processing power of the average desktop has increased exponentially.

For science, this means the data grows more and more distant from hypothesis-testing and model-building. Data is made accessible in the hope that someone will eventually make it usable. For political life, this creates a chasm between news that matters and news that’s entertaining. You want news you can use? Well, that’s your problem.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed while trying to sift through fact and fiction to find the information that makes a difference in vote choice, policy expectations or even the decision to get involved. If journalists once dug for gold to help their audiences navigate these turbulence, they’ve sacrificed that role as they’ve competed to throw bricks, to throw lots of them and to throw them before anyone else does.

A flurry of web activity demonstrates just how little help one can expect from the press. In a recent post to the New York Times Public Editor’s Journal, Arthur Brisbane asked, “should the Times be a truth vigilante?

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

The earliest comments on the site hit along the same theme… how could this even be a question? If the Times isn’t a truth vigilante, what else could it be? Perhaps our media outlets have considered themselves to be purveyors of petty insults and meaningless drivel this whole time. Jay Rosen, a NYU journalism professor, has relentlessly called out the media for their “view from nowhere” and offers an excellent analysis of this latest installment.

There are many reasons to expect this deluge of dirt and date to only get worse. I hope this all hits home the next time you see a headline lampooning what little information American voters know. Too many of us enjoy the chuckle and assure ourselves we’re different. There’s an important follow up questions we should require… how the hell are we supposed to know anything? And what news are we missing because this headline was funny?


*** A future post will look at how to ditch dumb headlines and demand better. If you have a strategy that works for you, please share it by commenting on this post.