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Book Reviews


Full Meridian of Glory

Author: Paul Murdin

Publisher: Copernicus Books

ISBN: 978-0-3877-5533-5

Price: £15.99 (Hb) 190pp


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This superb book, subtitled ‘Perilous Adventures in the Competition to Measure the Earth’, is a fascinating account of the navigational and astronomical work instructed by the French Government to the Paris Academy of Sciences from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. It was a time of revolution and enlightenment. It was a time of national identity and for Paris to be seen as taking an assured lead in positional navigation with a vanguard capable of delivering.

Murdin brings together for the first time the full story of the Paris Meridian, which has seemingly maintained a lovely cultural title of La Méridienne Verte (The Green Meridian); so called for the encouragement of land owners to plant trees along the meridian!

For France the definition of ‘Meridian’ is extended from the north-side polar line to include real-time. Thereby, through new geographic triangulation and culmination studies of the night sky, borders and boundaries could be significantly redrawn. At the height of political and social change in Europe, this was vital. Murdin establishes the basis for the ongoing work quickly, which is a distinct quality of this book.

The evidence here perhaps sympathetically portrays the scientists’ hopes to be removed from national and international disputes, but it is clear that with travels to Spain, Northern Scandinavia and even South America, their hopes were often dashed.

The emerging heroes for me in this story are Pierre-François André Mechain (1744–1804), Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774–1862) and Dominique François Jean Arago (1786–1853). Mechain, who was grounded in astronomy and mathematics through the lectures of Laplace, had worked as part of an Anglo–French team on the longitude variations between Greenwich and Paris in 1787. By 1792, he was leaving revolutionary Paris to undertake the abstraction work from the meridian that took him south-west into Spain, toward Barcelona and eventually Castillón. The death of Mechain left Biot as the leading mathematician at the Paris Observatory, who proposed that Arago accompany him to continue the work of Mechain. Arago’s story in itself is a remarkable account by Murdin and the real highlight.

This is an outstanding book and a real benchmark in the wealth of astronomical historical studies of the period.

Ian Welland

 

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