Latitude: How American Astronomers Solved the Mystery of Variation

Latitude: How American Astronomers Solved the Mystery of Variation

by Bill E. Carter
     
 

"Nineteenth-century European astronomers tried for decades to explain the variations in their careful astronomical observations. But where the best minds in Europe failed, an intellectual upstart from America succeeded. In 1891 Seth Carlo Chandler Jr., an actuary for a Boston insurance company with no formal education in astronomy, shocked the international scientific… See more details below

Overview

"Nineteenth-century European astronomers tried for decades to explain the variations in their careful astronomical observations. But where the best minds in Europe failed, an intellectual upstart from America succeeded. In 1891 Seth Carlo Chandler Jr., an actuary for a Boston insurance company with no formal education in astronomy, shocked the international scientific community by announcing that he had solved the problem and that an inexpensive instrument he had designed could detect the variation. Another American, Simon Newcomb, compounded the Europeans' embarrassment. Working at the U.S. Naval Observatory Newcomb validated Chandler's findings and reconciled the difference between his observations and accepted theory." Chandler's discovery, dubbed "the Chandler Wobble," had profound significance to astronomers of the time and later played an important role in space exploration and the development of the revolutionary Global Positioning System (GPS). The authors, a father-daughter team of scientists, tell the story of Chandler's life and scientific works with the aid of private correspondence, documents, and family photographs. In recounting both the historical and dramatic human aspects of the story, they help readers appreciate how Chandler's achievements gave America credibility in the world of serious scientific research.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Just as people invariably confuse latitude and longitude, there will no doubt be confusion between Dava Sobel's Longitude and the Carters' Latitude. Both are interesting reads on related but not the same topics. This is a nontechnical account of Seth Chandler's solution to the problem of the variation between observed and theoretical measurements of latitude, a problem that plagued European astronomers for decades. Thus, the solution in 1891 by an American who had no formal training in astronomy, facilitated by an inexpensive instrument he designed to detect the variation, stunned the European community. No doubt adding insult to injury, Chandler's findings were validated by another American, Simon Newcomb, at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Significant at the time, Chandler's solution has gone on to play an important role in space exploration and the development of global positioning systems (GPS). This interesting book also has the distinction of being written by a father-and-daughter team of scientists (Bill is a former research geodesist; Merri Sue is an astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory's National Earth Orientation Service). Recommended for larger public and academic history of science collections. James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Carters, a father-daughter geodesist-astronomer team, tell the story of how an actuary at a life-insurance company, in 1891, came to understand latitudinal variation and nail down its law. Among the most vexing problems for 19th-century astronomers was the unpredictable scatter of their celestial observations due to unexplained problems with the angle of aberration and parallax. Although variation in latitude-that is, the mysterious movement of a place relative to the fixed line of latitude-had been suggested as the culprit for some time, it was not until Seth Chandler, an American amateur astronomer working in the life-insurance industry, devised his own tools for measurement. Chandler's measurements were then reconciled with dynamic theory by Simon Newcomb, and the variation was understood. The reasons for it came to be known as the Chandler Wobble, after the movement of the Earth's pole, but that doesn't come close to explaining the phenomenon, and the Carters suffer no fools in their story. Their story sits in that funny land between popular study and learned essay. The Carters have decided not to eschew the language of science ("the centrifugal force acting on any point in a rotating body increases linearly with the distance from the axis of rotation, and the square of the angular velocity"). Despite the slices of historical narrative and biographical material, this is destined mainly for an enlightened amateur audience comfortable with the language. At the same time, there are windows of opportunity for the non-specialist to become acquainted with physical properties of Earth, including the revolution of Earth's pole, fluidity, elasticity, centrifugal force, and periodicity,which in turn may offer readers a glimmer as to why their personal GPS devices may need minute recalibrations every so often. Wading through the physics of it all, the Carters manage to convey a sense of Earth's dynamic nature-the swiftness of its transformations-and the impermanence of all things measured.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781557500168
Publisher:
Naval Institute Press
Publication date:
11/28/2002
Pages:
168
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.22(h) x 1.02(d)

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