Geodesy, the study of the shape of the Earth, is not an obvious subject for popular history. But since Dava Sobel's Longitude broke the trail in 1995, there have been a number of outstanding books on the topic, notably John Keay's The Great Arc (2000) and Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things (2002). Robert Whitaker's The Mapmakers Wife (2004) is a more recent candidate for the Sobel Prize.
It describes the 1735 expedition to South America organised by the French Academy of Sciences. The question the expedition was designed to settle was the most controversial scientific question of the day: whether the Earth is spherical. Newton's theory predicted that the earth would be slightly flattened at the poles; by contrast the French map maker Cassini held that it was elongated ('like a pot bellied man wearing a tight belt'). The South American expedition did provide an answer (Newton was right), but it took ten years and resulted in several deaths; working conditions were excruciating.
On the whole, I don't think the book is as successful as the other titles mentioned above. Whitaker has a regrettable tendency to throw in great chunks of background material: in one chapter there is a potted history of Spain (back to A.D. 711), in another a review of Amazonian explorers, in another an overextended survey of geodesy. Meanwhile, the action stalls. Some idea of the extent of this problem may be gained from the fact that the expedition is just setting off from France on page 98. The book could have been half the length without serious loss.
Second, while the prose is serviceable, it is not stylish. There are many redundancies ('historical record', 'inventory list', 'mathematically calculate', 'inner psychological strength'); there is the descent to playground language ('This upset La Condamine and Bouguer, for it meant he was piddling away the expedition's cash'); but worst are the mixed metaphors ('The decline in the textile industry caused by a flood of cheap imports from Europe was having a domino effect'). Were the editors asleep?
Set against this, the story of Isabel Godin's trek through the Amazonian jungle is a remarkable one. The chapters which deal with this (the last three) are by the far the best. It is a shame you have to plough through so much to get to them.
It's not bad; but Sobel, Keay and Alder are better.
One person found this helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?