Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Grand Reset: Zero Degrees

The Problem of Longitude and the Prime Meridian

Distinguishing itself from books on the so-called 'problem of longitude' whose most popular exemplar is Dava Sobel's Longitude, Charles Withers' 2017 treatise Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian examines the problem of the starting, or zero, point for longitude and associated problems of the standardisation of global time.

It is a fascinating journey from ancient times to the 1884 International Meridian Conference, held in Washington DC, with special focus on the so-called 'afterlife' of 1884/Washington.  That afterlife led to the French adoption of standard (as opposed to universal, or 24-hour) time centred on Greenwich, and to the use of the metre in England to measure heights, a mutually beneficial arrangement for both the French and the English.

Precision and Accuracy

This book makes some original claims about what it means to be accurate.  This overused term is here demonstrated to have meaning in reference to human activity, error, and effort directed at correcting the latter.  This effort is exemplified in the recurring motif of paired observers conducting measurements to compare longitudinal positions of prime meridians in both London and Paris, with the inevitable resulting error due to changing 'personal equations' in reference to reference stars and instrumentation associated with the cities' observatories.

And so, while accuracy is concerned with two or more meridians' attempts to reconcile, precision is focused more on fixing a baseline in and of itself.  The location of the prime meridian as we now know it to be at Greenwich, has moved in recent years due to gravitational anomalies in the locale of zero degrees itself.  This fact diminishes the precision of Greenwich mean time, but for humanity it ends up making no difference, because we now agree to use Greenwich mean time itself as our baseline, and it is the agreement itself that matters (i.e. the accuracy), and the fact that we now all agree to use this line and not the other makes all the difference.  Epistemology (how we know) is trumped by the fact that we know.

Neutrality and Science

Withers' also takes up the question of neutrality, a political concept, over and against that of non-neutrality, which is associated with the scientific outlook.  The non-neutrality position is associated with the fact that observatories are more readily able to conduct the precise measurements associated with their station; science itself and its practitioners are therefore not agnostic with respect to the location of the prime meridian.  They believe the meridian must be placed at an observatory; against this view, the neutralists would have placed the prime meridian at the opposite side of the globe to Greenwich, with the meridian in question running through part of Kamchatka.

The neutral option was championed by those of an anti-political stance, in essence, those believing that partiality with respect to nation in the placement of the prime meridian would somehow compromise its ability to do its job.  In retrospect, this must look absurd.  The non-neutralists, champions of science, and associates of observatories were very much in the right to highlight that the proximity of scientific instrumentation and traditions of practice and use were the best guarantors of both the precision and sought after accuracy (though non-neutral and based in one nation).

Sandford Fleming and William Parker Snow

There were some very interesting characters hanging around meetings such as that held in Washington, DC in 1884 to deliberate the adoption of a single prime meridian, and very importantly, the use of standard or universal time systems for the globe.  Sandford Fleming, a Scots-born Canadian, wrote a couple of very influential pamphlets on time, and these showed their influence in Fleming's contribution to the Washington meeting, but for the most part Fleming's universalist and neutralist stance was fairly consistently rejected.  He is a case, however, where being wrong was the rightest thing ever, because his work highlighted and articulated the precise opposite of what was in fact ultimately adopted.  Fleming's work was the counter-example needed in order the main theme to emerge, that of standard time centred non-neutrally and very firmly within England.  Fleming's own statistics proved the rightness of this choice, with the tonnage and numbers of ships over time using the port at Greenwich demonstrating overwhelmingly the emphasis and influence of the global shipping trade at this location

Withers begins his book by introducing a very curious character, one who was believed to be a psychic traveller in both space and time: William Parker Snow.  Snow also believed that Franklin, of the lost Franklin expedition, was still alive, though he had not evidence of this.  Snow's relevance to Withers' story is that he was an early champion of the idea of a global single prime meridian, and his eccentricity serves as an interesting inducement for the reader to continue further.  It certainly worked for this reader.

Measurement and Territoriality

Related to the question of neutrality (or lack thereof), is that of the size of things, and by extension the size of those things we call states.  One of the problems with fixing the prime meridian, and to agreeing to a single one, was the fact that measurement itself was subject to considerable disagreement and fluctuation.  The shape and size of the earth, its geodesy, was contested in part because scientists and surveyors could not agree amongst themselves what the standard of measurement was, and where it was to be centred.  A fraction of a millimetre less than a hair's width, compounded over several million inches or centimetres, will add up to a considerable difference when extended from the equator to the poles.  In terms of the triangulations that form the baselines for the measurement of whole nations, this fact will result in, precisely, their mis-measurement, whether shrinkage, expansion, or combinations thereof.  Therefore, it was crucial first for nations to agree to their units, and to how these would be rationed, precisely, over the very uneven and uncertain surface of the earth.

Spatiality and Temporality

Withers' book is about space and time, and here they are treated separately before their synthesis, in a kind of classical treatment that harks at times back to Kant.  Withers (2017, page 123) states: "Space in vital respects is a human construct. Even if it exists as an objective 'thing in itself,' the meaning we give it is at once social, temporal, experiential, and relational." It is his belief in the 'thinginess' of space, and its simultaneous social construction, with no real critique of this seemingly unresolvable binary tension, that gives this book its somewhat old-school flavour. The archival work and scholarship are impeccable, but the Kantian slant has the hint of positivism about it. This does not detract.

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