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Full Meridian of Glory: Perilous Adventures in the Competition to Measure the Earth [Hardcover]

Paul Murdin

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Book Description

19 Dec 2008 0387755330 978-0387755335 2009

[the text below needs editing and we must be careful not to say things about Dan Brown's book that could get Springer in legal trouble]

Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, was first published in 2003; its sales have reached 40 million worldwide. The book mixes a small spice of fact into a large dollop of fiction to create an entertaining novel of intrigue, adventure, romance, danger and conspiracy, which have been imaginatively worked together to cook up the successful bestseller.

Most interest in the book's origins has centred on the sensational religious aspects. Dan Brown has written: 'All of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies, all of that is historical fact.' This gives an air of authenticity to the book. Brown has, however, made up the religious doctrines, or based them on questionable accounts by others.

The locations of the actions of The Da Vinci Code are not, however, made up. The present book is the scientific story behind the scene of several of the book's actions that take place on the axis of France that passes through Paris.

The Paris Meridian is the name of this location. It is the line running north-south through the astronomical observatory in Paris. One of the original intentions behind the founding of the Paris Observatory was to determine and measure this line. The French government financed the Paris Academy of Sciences to do so in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. It employed both astronomers - people who study and measure the stars - and geodesists - people who study and measure the Earth. This book is about what they did and why. It is a true story behind Dan Brown's fiction.

This is the first English language presentation of this historical material. It is attractively written and it features the story of the community of scientists who created the Paris Meridian. They knew each other well - some were members of the same families, in one case of four generations. Like scientists everywhere they collaborated and formed alliances; they also split into warring factions and squabbled. They travelled to foreign countries, somehow transcending the national and political disputes, as scientists do now, their eyes fixed on ideas of accuracy, truth and objective, enduring values - save where the reception given to their own work is concerned, when some became blind to high ideals and descended into petty politics.

To establish the Paris Meridian, the scientists endured hardship, survived danger and gloried in amazing adventures during a time of turmoil in Europe, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War between France and Spain. Some were accused of witchcraft. Some of their associates lost their heads on the guillotine. Some died of disease. Some won honour and fame. One became the Head of State in France, albeit for no more than a few weeks. Some found dangerous love in foreign countries. One scientist killed in self defence when attacked by a jealous lover, another was himself killed by a jealous lover, a third brought back a woman to France and then jilted her, whereupon she joined a convent.

The scientists worked on practical problems of interest to the government and to the people. They also worked on one of the important intellectual problems of the time, a problem of great interest to their fellow scientists all over the world, nothing less than the theory of universal gravitation. They succeeded in their intellectual work, while touching poli

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More About the Author

Paul Murdin has worked as an astronomer in the USA, Australia, England, Scotland and Spain, where he led the operation of the Anglo-Dutch Isaac Newton Group of telescopes. He has been a research scientist (studying supernovae, black holes and neutron stars) and a science administrator for the UK Government and the Royal Astronomical Society. He works at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England, and is Visiting Professor at John Moores University, Liverpool. He has had a secondary career as a broadcaster and commentator, and is a talented lecturer and writer on astronomy. He has been honoured in the UK by the Queen for his services to astronomy.

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From the reviews:

"This book was clearly a labor of love; Murdin has brought his passion for astronomy and its history to a topic which on the surface appears quite apart from this activity. … The publisher has supported Murdin’s effort with a physically appealing, aesthetic work, on high quality paper, complete with lovely diagrams and photographs. … I recommend it for the general reader. … For the motivated reader, the effort will be well rewarded with a picaresque journey through a relatively unknown section of scientific history." (Library Thing, May, 2009)

"The immediate impression of the book is quality … . Murdin starts the journey with a very brief introduction to the relationship between mapping latitude and longitude and the movement of astronomical bodies such as Jupiter. … Throughout the entire book, Murdin skillfully balances the technical details mapping techniques and instruments … . Overall, this book is a handsome, quality, very readable volume that deserves a prominent position in any history of science and engineering." (Library Thing, April, 2009)

"British astronomer Murdin … carefully examines the history of the Paris meridian in a work designed to highlight the adventures connected with the performance of what many might see as rather tedious research. … In a report that stretches over centuries, Murdin is careful to define terms, introduce the important characters, and include many nice illustrations. … Summing Up: Recommended. General readers." (M.-K. Hemenway, Choice, Vol. 46 (10), June, 2009)

“This modestly priced volume takes us on three journeys. The first is across the globe … to discover the true figure of the Earth, and all this amid the turmoil surrounding the French Revolution. … The second journey is through time, in which the role of the meridian is discussed … . And finally, we are taken on a journey across Paris, along the meridian … provided that the book can act as a guide for those wishing to follow the trail for themselves.” (David Stickland, The Observatory, Vol. 129 (1213), December, 2009)

From the Back Cover

The Paris Meridian is the name of the line running north-south through the astronomical observatory in Paris. One of the original intentions behind the founding of the Paris Observatory was to determine and measure this line. To that end, the French government financed the Paris Academy of Sciences to do so in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries employing both astronomers – people who study and measure the stars – and geodesists – people who study and measure the Earth. This book is about what they did and why.

Full Meridian of Glory is the first English language presentation of this historical material in its entirety. It is an attractively written story of the scientists who created the Paris Meridian. They collaborated and worked together in alliances, like scientists everywhere; they also split into warring factions. They transcended national and political disputes, as scientists do now, their eyes fixed on ideals of accuracy, truth and objectivity. Yet also when their work served national interests they were sometimes less than neutral, and if their work was questioned they sometimes blindly descended into petty politics.

This book tells the story of the adventures in France, in Spain, in Lapland and in Ecuador of the scientists who worked through revolution, war, rebellion, piracy, fire, shipwreck, blockade, snow, tropical heat, kidnapping, murder and turbulent love affairs to pursue a problem of map making. They turned that practical problem into a crucial scientific test of one of the most important intellectual problems of their time – Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. Their work changed their own lives, affected the course of science and politics, and left its mark on the landscape, the art and the literature of history and in our own age.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful idea, an unsatisfying book 31 Mar 2009
By Richard Derus - Published on Amazon.com
This short book is another entry in the popular science genre made famous by Dava Sobel's book, "Longitude." It examines the difficult technical and intellectual feat of creating an accurately measured meridian line, intended to be an aid to mapping and navigation; like the Greenwich Meridian, which we today call the Prime Meridian, is on world maps, it was the zero point for measures of longitude on maps made in France.

The issues surrounding the measurement of the Paris Meridian were multitudinous, and the people involved in the project over the course of a century were legion. Voltaire, three generations of the Cassini family, the Marquise du Chatelet; a who's-who of French scientific inquiry, and all on their juciest worst behavior, it seems.

That is, to me, the premise for a wonderful, engrossing, informative read. This book, alas, is not that kind of endeavor at all. The problem lies, in my humble opinion, not with the author's talents but with his intentions.

Dr. Murdin is a perfectly competent prose writer, and possessed of a dry wit that is all too seldom on display. He has written an account of the story, and not the story, promised in the title. This book as it is now contains all the notes and the sidebars (unless this is a hardcover ARC, the sidebars in the text are criminally poorly handled and should cause the author's agent to lodge a strong complaint with Springer's legal department...the sidebars explaining people, places, and concepts are scattered within the text itself and not delineated by any design element other than smaller type, and are not positioned in any sort of logical order or relationship to the person/place/thing sidebarred!) for the real, juicy book of scientists behaving badly in their noble quest to make the world a better place and their place in it more secure.

Perhaps Dr. Murdin was flummoxed in his quest to write that book by the immensity of the cast of characters, mostly unknown to an average English-speaking audience; perhaps he was stymied by the publisher's reluctance to present the marketplace with a huge tome on such an abstruse subject, seeing as it's hard enough to sell $27.50 books on more popular topics; perhaps he simply didn't feel like it was necessary to give us the details that bring a time and a place and a quest to full and vivid life.

I am so sorry that he didn't, since I feel certain that he could have and am positive that he should have, since the book as presented is simply not one that will capture and ignite the extant market of pop-sci readers' interest and garner word-of-mouth praise.

The field is still open, science writers, for a whacking great doorstop of a page-turner epic on this undertaking....
4.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing history of scientific achievement 19 July 2014
By E. King - Published on Amazon.com
Not at all for the casual reader, a reasonably strong academic background and 'stick-to-it-iveness' is required. Nevertheless, the reader who has a particular interest in geography combined with history and scientific discovery will be rewarded after having sacrificed some eyesight due to the quite dense text. It isn't a book to rush through but is one which provides considerable insight into a history over a broad expanse of time. The author is to be commended for this effort!
1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dense but not too long 28 July 2009
By Benjamin Espen - Published on Amazon.com
Paul Murdin's Full Meridian of Glory is a weighty tome. It is not particularly long, but it is very dense, both in the hand and in the mind. The book itself is beautiful heavy paper, with many wonderful illustrations. The text iself has the mark of being typeset in LaTeX. The sidebars are indented, but placed in the main flow of text, and the list of illustrations is suspiciously complete. This gives the book a mark of authenticity, because many papers in physics and astronomy are typeset in LaTeX as well. I understand this is becoming common practice in books in mathematics and the hard sciences, editors are streamlining the book production process by relying on the automation provided by LaTeX, and only giving minimal assistance to all but the most famous authors.

This book is for the history of science buff, the devoted astronomer, or the dogged generalist. The history is thick with the large and varied cast of scientists and craftsmen who made the measurement of the earth possible. A chronology is provided in the front matter, but this book could almost use a dramatis personae. Some facility with mathematics would be very helpful, but the book could be read without it as long as one was content to glide over many disquisitions on minutes of arc and parallax.

I appreciated the detail on geodesy. I had long wondered exactly how mapping and surveying was performed, and this book provides that information for the interested amateur. The patience and industry necessary to provide us with the accurate maps we enjoy is nothing short of astonishing, and also a testament to the power of modern science to slowly accumulate great knowledge, despite the personal hardships and international conflagrations that seem to divert science from its course.

A fine capsule history of a great event, dense, but not too long. Full of fun facts and good science, but perhaps too technical for the average reader.
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