Longitude Reading Guide: Understanding the Quest for Navigation and the Measurement of Time


Longitude is a captivating book written by Dava Sobel that delves into the fascinating history of the search for an accurate method of determining longitude at sea. Published in 1995, the book sheds light on the dangers sailors faced when they were unable to accurately measure their east-west position on the globe. Sobel takes readers on a remarkable journey through the centuries, showcasing the brilliance and perseverance of inventors, astronomers, and navigators who dedicated their lives to solving this critical problem. With meticulous research and engaging storytelling, Sobel not only explores the scientific and technological advancements made in the pursuit of measuring longitude, but also highlights the societal and political significance of this quest. Through the lens of history, Longitude provides an illuminating account of human ingenuity and the transformative impact of a single invention on the world.


Longitude List

Readers of this reading guide can expect to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the book “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. The guide likely provides a summary of the book’s content, along with analysis and interpretation. It may highlight the main themes, characters, and historical context, thereby enabling readers to engage more fully with the text. Additionally, the guide might offer discussion questions or prompts to encourage readers to reflect on various aspects of the book and stimulate further exploration. Overall, readers can expect to enhance their reading experience and gain valuable insights into the significance of “Longitude” through this guide.

Author Background

Dava Sobel is an American author who is best known for her book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. She was born on June 15, 1947, in the Bronx, New York City. Sobel attended the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She later pursued a career in science journalism, working as a reporter for the New York Times and as a science writer for several magazines.

Longitude, published in 1995, catapulted Sobel to international fame and became a bestseller. The book tells the captivating story of John Harrison, an English clockmaker who devoted his life to creating an accurate marine chronometer. This invention allowed sailors to determine their longitude at sea, solving a centuries-old problem and revolutionizing navigation. Sobel’s meticulous research and storytelling skills brought the story to life, shedding light on the remarkably eccentric and determined characters involved in this scientific breakthrough.

In addition to Longitude, Dava Sobel has authored other acclaimed works, including Galileo’s Daughter, The Planets, and A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Her books combine scientific exploration with historical narratives, making complex subjects accessible and engaging. Sobel’s writing has earned her numerous awards and honors, including the Women’s National Book Association Award, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Nonfiction Book of the Year, and the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award.

Dava Sobel’s work as an author has not only entertained and educated readers worldwide, but it has also brought attention to lesser-known scientific figures and their significant contributions. Her ability to blend history, science, and storytelling has made her a respected and beloved writer in the realm of popular science literature.


Longitude Book Club Questions

1. What does the pursuit of knowledge and scientific progress mean for society? Is the sacrifice of individuals justified in the name of progress?

In Longitude, the characters face significant sacrifices in their pursuit of scientific progress. For example, John Harrison dedicates his entire life to building the accurate timekeeping device, the chronometer. This singular focus on scientific advancement often results in personal hardships, financial struggles, and social isolation. By highlighting these sacrifices, Dava Sobel prompts readers to reflect on the impact of scientific progress on society.

The pursuit of knowledge and scientific progress undoubtedly leads to numerous benefits for society. It enables technological advancements, improvements in healthcare, and enhances our understanding of the world. However, Longitude also raises questions about the price individuals pay for this progress. The story demonstrates that society often overlooks or undervalues the sacrifices made by individuals in the name of scientific advancement.

While progress is crucial, it is essential to consider the ethical implications and balance the needs of individuals with the collective benefit. The sacrifices made by characters like John Harrison should not be forgotten or dismissed. A society that thrives on scientific advancement needs to find ways to support and compensate individuals who dedicate their lives to such pursuits.

2. How does bias and prejudice hinder scientific progress and innovation?

Longitude showcases that bias and prejudice can significantly hinder scientific progress and innovation. The established scientific community’s refusal to accept John Harrison’s chronometer due to bias against self-taught clockmakers is a prime example. This bias prevented the adoption of a technology that could have saved countless lives and improved navigation for sailors.

When individuals are dismissed or marginalized due to their background, social status, or lack of formal education, society loses out on valuable contributions. Prejudice and bias can limit perspectives, stifle creativity, and hinder collaboration. By acknowledging this, readers are prompted to reflect on the importance of diversity in scientific fields.

Diverse perspectives and backgrounds lead to a wider range of ideas, innovative approaches, and novel solutions. Inclusion and openness to different ideas are vital for scientific progress. By recognizing and challenging bias and prejudice, scientists and society as a whole can foster an environment that encourages creativity, collaboration, and breakthrough discoveries.

3. How does the quest for recognition and validation impact individuals and their work?

Longitude presents a vivid portrayal of how the quest for recognition and validation can impact individuals and their work. John Harrison spends years trying to prove the accuracy and reliability of his chronometer to the Royal Observatory, facing skepticism and rejection. This constant struggle for recognition takes a toll on his physical and mental well-being.

The desire for recognition often comes with a price, as individuals face rejection, self-doubt, and sacrificing personal happiness. This quest can overshadow the actual value and impact of their work. Harrison’s chronometer would have saved countless lives at sea, but it takes years for his invention to be widely accepted.

This theme prompts readers to consider the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. It asks us to question whether achieving recognition is the ultimate goal or if the joy of creation and the impact of one’s work should be enough. It also highlights the importance of acknowledging and supporting individuals whose work may not be immediately recognized or celebrated.

In conclusion, Longitude by Dava Sobel raises thought-provoking questions about the sacrifices made in the name of progress, the influence of bias and prejudice on scientific advancement, and the impact of the quest for recognition. Exploring these questions encourages readers to reflect on the ethical implications of scientific progress, the importance of diversity in scientific fields, and the true value of individual contributions.

Longitude Similar Books

1. “The Map That Changed the World” by Simon Winchester: This book tells the story of the creation of the first geological map of England by William Smith. Like “Longitude,” it explores the challenges faced by a pioneering scientist and the impact of their work on society.

2. “The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World” by Edward Dolnick: This book delves into the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the development of the Royal Society. It explores the intellectual and cultural climate that influenced the pursuit of knowledge during that time, offering a broader context to the scientific advancements highlighted in “Longitude.”

3. “Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love” by Dava Sobel: In this book, Dava Sobel explores the life of Galileo Galilei through the correspondence with his eldest daughter, Suor Maria Celeste. It details the challenges faced by Galileo as he pushed the boundaries of scientific understanding, similar to John Harrison’s journey in “Longitude.”

4. “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” by Steven Johnson: This book tells the gripping story of the cholera outbreak in 1854 London and the investigation by John Snow to identify the source of the disease. It intertwines themes of scientific discovery, urban development, and societal impact, paralleling the themes explored in “Longitude.”

5. “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” by Richard Holmes: This book captures the lives and achievements of key figures of the Romantic era, such as Humphry Davy and William Herschel, who made extraordinary discoveries in science and exploration. It provides a fascinating insight into the intellectual climate of the time, intertwining science, art, and philosophy.

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