Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
John Harrison gets his due. Even now his name is virtually unknown, but he made one of the most important discoveries in the history of exploration—how to find longitude. It’s easy to find one’s latitude. If you can see the North Star, you’re in the northern hemisphere. The higher up in the sky it is, the farther north you are. Ditto for the Southern Cross and other features in the southern hemisphere’s night key.
Longitude is also easy in concept—just compare when noon local time is with noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and you’ll know exactly how far east or west you are. The trouble is that building a clock that kept accurate time while enduring rough shipboard conditions was impossible for all of human history. Everyone from Phoenician sailors on up through Columbus and Magellan had no idea what longitudes their discoveries were located at. They could only guess, and they often did a lousy job of it.
The key to finding accurate longitude was a centuries-long pop culture joke, similar to pre-1969 “they’ll put a man on the moon before that happens” jokes. The longitude joke’s currency ended in the mid-1700s when a watchmaker named John Harrison, spurred on by a £20,000 prize sponsored by the Royal Society, invented a series of clocks that were finally up to the task.
Sobel tells the story masterfully, setting up the history of the problem and why it matters, the origins of the Royal Society and prizes for inventions, the significance of the Scientific Revolution, John Harrison’s life story and his chase of the prize, and fascinating descriptions of the materials and craftsmanship that went into Harrison’s remarkable inventions. He made five clocks, each outdoing the last, though H-4, as it is known, is the most famous.
Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
A look at the 16th-century Scientific Revolution as one of the founding processes of modernity, with a special focus on England and the Royal Society. Pairs well with much of Joel Mokyr’s work on how cultural attitudes affect technological progress. Dolnick’s book is narrower in focus and not as rigorous, but it is more accessible, and provides a good look at the Republic of Letters, though its England-heavy focus doesn’t fully capture the scientific movement’s cross-national and cross-religious character. Dolnick could also have done more on the Scientific Revolution’s greater historical context. Its secular, cosmopolitan, and dynamist outlook built upon earlier Renaissance and Reformation thought, or at least their more liberal strains. At the same time, the Scientific Revolution was a necessary practical predecessor to the more philosophical Enlightenment that flowered in the 18th century in Scotland, France, America, and elsewhere. A useful book, but more of a sketch than a full-fledged investigation of the beginnings of modernity.
James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3
The best of the series so far. The protomolecule that was the major plot axis of the first two books forms a 1,000 km-wide ring between Uranus and Neptune’s orbits. The space inside the ring seems to be some kind of wormhole leading to a million-kilometer wide space with more than a thousand other rings spread along its edges. Earth, Mars, and the Belt waver between war and peace, both inside and outside the ring space. Protagonist James Holden and his crew, along with a few other characters try to keep the peace, and try to ward off a vengeful character whose father and sister figured prominently in the first two volumes. The drama of a continually worsening situation keeps building and building, with some elaborate physics involved—gravity and inertia turn out to be excellent plot devices. The final battle scene is fantastically done—one of the best I’ve read.
Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space
A book-length Q&A session with an astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station. The tone is friendly and conversational, and the questions are good—Peake drew from public responses using the Twitter hashtag #askanastronaut.
His answers cover everything from training, liftoff, the various irks and quirks of life on the ISS, from food to using the bathroom, what space smells like, what happens when you sweat inside a spacesuit in zero-gravity, and the scary thrill of reentry. I can see this book appealing to younger space enthusiasts, too.
Jeffrey Kluger – Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon
This one was hard to put down. An exciting account of the first time men flew to the moon and orbited around it. Less than a year later, Apollo 11 would actually land on the moon and Neil Armstrong would utter his famous words. But he couldn’t have done it without the Apollo 8 team paving the way through many difficulties, both physical and political.
Walter Isaacson – Steve Jobs
A biography of the Apple co-founder. Isaacson captures Jobs’ multifaceted character. Jobs created life-changing innovations that improved millions of lives in fields as diverse as hardware, software, movies, music, and retail. He cofounded what would become the world’s most valuable company, and untold thousands of jobs. His minimalist design aesthetic has influenced countless other industries.
But Jobs had an artist’s difficult temperament, wasn’t much of a father, and could be hurtful to people he loved and who loved him. His odd new age beliefs are partly to blame for his likely avoidable death from pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed at an early and likely treatable stage, but insisted on holding off medical treatment for nearly a year, preferring instead such measures as an alternative diet. Jobs was a great man, but not a good one in all ways.
In Carl Sagan’s essay “In Praise of Science and Technology,” which appears as chapter 4 of his book Broca’s Brain (see location 682 of the Kindle edition), he writes:
There are many people alive today who were born before the first airplane and have lived to see Viking land on Mars, and Pioneer 10, the first interstellar spacecraft, be ejected from the solar system.
Sagan wrote that essay in the 1970s. This got me thinking about my daughter, born in 2015. She will almost certainly live to see the year 2100. What marvels will she have witnessed by that time? It sure is a good time to be alive.