Sobel, Longitude

/ Reading Notes /
Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, 1995

I had the luck and foresight to already know a bit about problems of navigation, thanx to Asivov, Sagan … but Sobel’s study is wonderful.

Only two men washed ashore alive. One of them was Sir Clowdisley himself, who may have watched the fifty-seven years of his life flash before his eyes as the waves carried him home. Certainly he had time to reflect on the events of the previous twenty-four hours, when he made what must have been the worst mistake in judgment of his naval career. He had been approached by a sailor, a member of the Association’s crew, who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet’s location during the whole cloudy passage. Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden in the Royal Navy, as the unnamed seaman well knew. However, the danger appeared so enormous, by his calculations, that he risked his neck to make his concerns known to the officers. Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot.

What I have failed to communicate before, during, and since 1970 is that society is little wiser today, if it’s as wise. We’re so self-conveniently ignorant we don’t even know what crimes we commit, what doors we slam, condemning ourselves.
The universities are no more open to intellect than the churches were ever open to god. But only truthful institutions could tell us!

While they’re here, right next to each other, notice how the initial two entries, the Nock, Jefferson and the Sobel, Longitude, relate: in the Williamsburg of the time of Jefferson’s birth it was illegal not to believe the dogma; at the time of the admiral’s disaster at sea, thousands drowned, several ships lost, trying to improve on the admiralty’s reckoning was instantly punishable by death. And then they offer prizes for innovation!
Heller had it letter perfect:
“I want someone to tell me,” Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched them all prayerfully. “If any of it is my fault, I want to be told.”
“He wants someone to tell him,” Clevinger said.
“He wants everyone to keep still, idiot,” Yossarian answered.
“Didn’t you hear him?” Clevinger argued.
“I heard him,” Yossarian replied. “I heard him say very loudly and very distinctly that he wants every one of us to keep our mouths shut if we know what’s good for us.”
“I won’t punish you,” Lieutenant Scheisskopf swore.
“He says he won’t punish me,” said Clevinger.
“He’ll castrate you,” said Yossarian.
“I swear I won’t punish you,” said Lieutenant Scheisskopf. “I’ll be grateful to the man who tells me the truth.”
“He’ll hate you,” said Yossarian. “To his dying day he’ll hate you.”
What I want to say as soon as I can: navigation was a reliable science with regards to latitude: where was the ship east or west; but by Newton’s time it still sucked north / south: longitudinally. The British crown offered a prize, genius clock maker more than met the criteria, but the prize committee kept changing the requirements, wasting the genius’s life and work. The promised prize was a cheat! And the science bureaucrats committing the fraud didn’t even know they were cheating! Humans! They confiscated his clocks, paying him some but withholding the prize, and took poor care of them! His theoretical enemy was in charge part of the time. The king was in his corner but the king didn’t quite run everything.
Read the whole yourself.

But Heller’s Catch-22 had other things perfect too: the Air Force tells Yosarrian how many missions he must fly before he can go back home: he flies them, and the authorities change the quorum, and change it again. John Harrison won the prize but didn’t get the prize. The master promises to marry the girl, the maid, the slave: watches her raise eight children for him, then says you burned the toast, I’ll beat you instead.

One line made me grimmace with an irony few would see at all and none see fully. The Longitude committee is reported as being composed of “intelligent people.” When the FBI arrested me, jailed me, when the fed was busy convicting me, insulted honesty by giving me a public defender! that lawyer, intelligent himself I assure you, though far from honest, told me that these, my prosecutors, were intelligence people! ??? Don’t respect facts, won’t let the truth be told … violate the Constitution, pander to the pugnacity of the Nazis …
The prosecutor, poor girl, had to “read” my tresspasses aloud in the court room. She couldn’t! She didn’t “get” a single one of the signals! the irony signals! She was illiterate, and the senseless court sat patiently as she fumbled. They had no interest in what I’d really written. Indeed, the paper the prosecutor was holding was written by the FBI, based in part on what I’d written that the judge was about to censor sho that no one could ever see what I’d actually said: irrecoverable now: I have the text files, but only the internet had the whole layout: and the meaning was in large part in the layout!
And I, if I wanted ever to get out of jail to resume telling the truth (too late to save anyone), if I wanted a fifteen month sentence instead of a forty year sentence, I had to go along in silence. Ah, but what I didn’t know, what they didn’t tell me, may not have known themselves, is that my internet presence would be hobbled even once I got out again! Had I known that I would have screamed, and risked the forty years.
But you know: Jesus suffered for a day, then he was dead. We can’t imagine the suffering but it wasn’t unprecedented: governments crucified lots of people, and for far longer than a day. We have no idea how virtuous, or even divine, some of the others may have been.
How they tortured me didn’t compare second by second, but my torture has been ongoing for sixty-some years.
Jesus’ society said to him, “We don’t have to listen to you, we can torture for even trying to help us. There!” And in go the nails.
My society has said the same, since childhood: and it’s still said to me, daily. No one knows what I’ve written: any more than Macbeth’s subjects knew what Duncan might have said as Macbeth was stabbing him. Caesar speaks three words, but Caesar had been blabbing for decades, was listened to.
So Sobel assures us that the people cheating John Harrison, our clockmaker, were intelligent. I’d like to see that skeptically tested.

Sorry I’m ranting, but that’s how things go sometimes: I may get sober in a rewrite.
2012 08 26

Reading Notes

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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