My Favourite Film of 1950.

Film One of the benefits of my MA Screen Studies course ten years ago was that many of the modules on offer were multi-discipline, or rather were being offered by departments other than drama. So although there was the potential to stay in that corner of the campus, I decided that I'd make my time there as eclectic as possible and so as well as courses in the Modern Language and English departments, I was able to avail myself of a "Science, Media and the Public" course in the science faculty.

Of all the modules, it's this which strayed far from the apparent remit of the MA because as well as screenings that included old episodes of US Horizon equivalent NOVA, Canadian sci-fi series Regenesis, British fantasies The Eleventh Hour and Afterlife, there were readings of such things as The Watchmen (years before Zac Snyder's adaptation). The one film we were shown was Destination Moon which was at least in terms of speculative fiction, how it was assumed people would indeed travel to the moon, a couple of decades before it actually happened.

The main theme of the course was that as with every aspect of human experience and culture, the communication of science is always about moulding a message, deciding which elements of science are relevant to a story being told and that even in shows like Horizon or scientific papers we're not always told the whole story, plenty is trimmed in order to make what we're presented understandable and palatable. There is always an agenda even if the agenda is understanding.

The final essay asked us to take a particular subject and compare and contrast how that subject has been communicated through two or three forms. Attempting to be clever clever I chose the longitude prize and particularly how Dava Sobel's seminal popular science history book began life as a magazine article and was adapted firstly into a co-produced episode of Horizon and NOVA and the Charles Sturridge drama made by Channel 4, co-starring Michael Gambon and John Harrison, the clockmaker who cracked the navigational problem and Jeremy Irons as the teacher who restored his time-pieces.

Here is the essay.  When this was submitted it also included a copy of the original article and other background material I think.  Here's a link to a pdf of the Harvard article. You can buy the book here.  The NOVA version of the Horizon episode is here. You can buy the Longitude miniseries here.

Now, onwards:

Dava Sobel’s 1995 book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, charted the endeavour to discover a practicable method of defining longitude at sea for navigation. As indicated in the title, Sobel’s approach was to highlight the work of one man, John Harrison, and the series of clocks that he developed in an attempt to win a prize that was defined by an act of parliament and enacted by a ‘Board of Longitude’ who assessed all of the proposed methods over some decades. Sobel’s book was based upon an earlier magazine article and would later be adapted into both a television science documentary and a drama mini-series.

The appearance of the material in these four different formats offers the ability to compare how the same piece of science is presented and explained in four disparate media texts. Although to some extent it is worthwhile discussing how the communication of science within these works is effected by the elevation of Harrison’s contribution, because of the brevity of this essay a single strand of the science outside of that narrative, the definition of longitude, will be studied and each of the four media text will be compared to demonstrate how the creator has taken advantage of the relative benefits of each, and how successful they have been at communicating the message to and the effects it may have upon the intended audience.

Sobel’s first article on the subject of longitude as published in Harvard Magazine is atypical of the four texts being analysed because, whilst presenting much the same narrative, it is actually a report of the proceedings of a three day international symposium investigating the subject, which took place at the Memorial Hall in Harvard University between the 4th and 6th November 1993. The magazine had originally declined the idea for an article and Sobel had attempted publication in a series of popular science magazines, with National Geographic notably being interested although they were unable to decide how to illustrate the piece so the idea was shelved (underlining that in such magazines some kind of angle is usually required for a story to be published). Then, just two days before the symposium, when the size of event that was taking place was becoming apparent to the magazine editors, Sobel was contacted again and would attend saying later that it ‘was about the best science meeting I’ve ever gone to, and I cover these things all the time.’

Harvard Magazine’s readership contains a high proportion of alumni from the university (the letters page lists not only the name of the correspondent and their location, but also their year of graduation) but nevertheless Sobel has written this article in a style that would be legible to a general readership. Bernard Dixon argues that when writing scientific articles ‘non-specialised terms that are clear and unambiguous in their meaning should be used whenever possible in place of less familiar jargon, if only to make an article or paper as accessible to the widest possible range of readers.’ Although Dixon was writing in relation to articles that appear in science magazines, this piece has been composed to similar guidelines, with the more complicated elements being given a full explanation. Indeed, the writer has also taken advantage of the accepted journalistic technique of autobiographically describing the events including her own reactions to the science as it unfolds, quoting and paraphrasing from the speakers to present the information to the reader. This has the effect of placing the reader in Sobel’s point of view, giving them a sense of the whole event, as well as the content of the lectures themselves, making the science itself much more attractive.

Since the symposium was attended by academics who would have had a clear understanding of longitude concepts and therefore did not mention them during their contributions, Sobel cleverly adds extra commentary in places to clarify various points and it is in these short sections that the journalist explains which lines of a typical globe are longitudinal and how the degrees of the earth relate to time. Firstly, on the opening page during a description of the late Alistair Cooke’s humorous introductory lecture. Secondly, after a direct quote from a speech by David Landes, the Coolidge professor of history and professor of economics at Harvard, weighing up the relative methods of both the lunar and clock methods of navigation. Sobel apparently understood that to underpin the endeavour of finding longitude the reader must be aware of the concept and its importance to shipping. These additions have the effect of reminding the reader of a concept that they may already have been aware of through general knowledge or schooling in service of describing an endeavour that may be less clear to them. Since the concepts are given less weight in the text, they are easily ignored by readers who already have enough of an understanding to be able to follow the rest of the text, yet also accessible enough to those who require a refresher.

It should also be noted that although the article contains many illustrations, there are no pictorial representations of the lines of longitude, which implies that the editor believed that Sobel’s additional words were sufficient. The main illustration on the opening pages, of a naval disaster, is the first iteration of a narrative strand that appears in all four texts of the wrecking of a fleet because of poor navigation leading to the ratification of the longitude prize. The inclusion of the tragedy underlines for the audience the vital importance at the time of finding practicable method for recording longitude at sea – in other words that finding longitude is important because it saves lives, a methodology common in many popular science texts.

Given the opportunity to expand the subject matter of the conference and the article into a book length text , Sobel initially sought the advice of her publishers, who advised her to ‘keep it short. This is not an encyclopaedic treatise. This is an explanation of an aspect of science to intelligent people who know nothing about this subject. That’s what you’re trying to do.’ In its original none illustrated publication the book is just a hundred and seventy five pages long with fifteen chapters – this places it is more in the format of a novel than what might be expected to be a traditional science text. The writing style is chatty and anecdotal -- at a conference after publication related to popular historical science writing Sobel reportedly explained that she wrote the book ‘as an imaginary conversation with her mother (a sailing enthusiast)’ – which places the writer in the position of storyteller presenting a narrative to a receptive audience who are put at ease.

It would appear that Sobel decided that the readership might require a narrative hook and point of access into the story. As was indicated in the introduction, the approach was to highlight the contribution of John Harrison and give the book the tropes of a standard heroic narrative as a protagonist risks all against a villainous antagonist (in this case, astronomers) for the sake of an ideal. Whilst, the focus of this essay does not allow for a wider discussion of the accuracy of emphasising Harrison’s contribution to solving the longitude problem, it must be acknowledged that Sobel’s prioritising of his work does effect the presentation of the science in the text; in those first six chapter’s before Harrison is introduced, the writer is actually emphasising the weight of the problem that the clockmaker must surmount rather than offering an in-depth analysis of the whole story. This averts a reader who might be more interested in the human story from being alienated by the science that surrounds it.

Sobel’s central theme is of science as a human endeavour rather than as an abstract concept. Throughout the book, rather than offering dry, purely scientific explanations, Sobel instead contextualises the science using a repeated methodology of opening out the human element from Harrison’s story to the whole text. In the ensuing chapters, whenever an item of scientific idea is to be discussed, a scientist is usually highlighted first and then the science itself is presented as a result of their decision making process. This method is not always successful, since the coherence of the scientific concept at hand is frequently submerged in the apparent personality of that scientist. Since Reverend Maskyline is one of the antagonists of the ‘story’, as Davida Charney explains, the writer ‘frequently treats the lunar method as a patently inadequate approach, rather than as an alternative that was at least equally plausible’ which has the effect of corrupting the scientific explanation at the expense of the narrative agenda giving the reader a false impression. It should be noted, however, that in explaining how the distance between lines of longitude are measured the writer does not assign a particular identity; she begins with ‘Any sailor worth his salt can gauge his latitude well enough by the length of the day,’ making the measurement important to everyman.

Whilst this slant could be considered populist, it acknowledges Paola Govani’s argument that in these publications there should be ‘different levels of communication, for different readers, or for different needs of the same reader,’ because the target audience for the book will be interested in the human ingredients of the story. As well as layering her own explanations into quotations from scientists and technologists as a way of providing authority, Sobel introduces autobiographical elements that present a less obvious way of colouring the greyer theoretical aspects. The opening definition of longitude occurs during the description of a memory from Sobel’s own childhood, of a trip to New York and the gift of a skeletal globe by her father. The text is infused with a high degree of description, allowing the reader to visualise the globe in their imagination so that they are aware that the book will indeed concern itself with those vertical lines. Sobel herself returns to the narrative in the final chapter in which she described a trip to Greenwich, giving the book the impression of being a journey, that the reader is has discovered this science alongside with the author.

Sobel’s autobiographical introduction does emphasise a technique that would see greater prominence in the Horizon Special and is repeated throughout the text – the introduction of modern elements into the generally historical analysis so that they are more accessible to a contemporary readership. On page five, Sobel advises that ‘Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks’ vividly illustrating how the relatively primitive technology of the time was being pushed into service to overcome a seemingly intractable dilemma. Contemporary social concerns are also invoked later to stress how much of a concern longitude was to the people of the time – ‘just as any alert schoolchild nowadays knows that cancer cries out for a cure and that there’s no good way to get rid of nuclear waste’ – again the reader is left in little doubt as to why the reward was so high and why so many people were searching for a solution.

The Horizon documentary was originally broadcast as part of the Nova strand on PBS in the United States, appeared on BBC Two on 4th January 1999 and premiered as the opening documentary in the ‘Time Season’. It was also the first programme to feature the BBC Millennium bumper signalling a twelve-month collection of programmes connected with what were the upcoming celebrations. Accompanying publicity in the Radio Times and at the BBC News website indicated to the potential audience that the documentary was based on Dava Sobel’s book. This explicit mentioning of the sourcing of a Horizon programme from an existing work (the book and author are crediting in the closing titles) is unusual for the programme and the connection to two major television events indicates that a marketing attempt was being made to attract viewers outside of the core audience of the series, including those who have read Sobel’s work. This would have some impact how the science is presented.

Roger Silverstone argues that science documentaries should ‘seek to entertain, to seduce by the beauty of their images, by their management of suspense, hope and tragedy, by the wit and elegance of their narration, by the power of their voice.’ This documentary is a perfect demonstration of this ethic. Led by an emotive voiceover, the programme luxuriates in dramatisations of Harrison in thought and work, with the clockmaker (as played by actor Patrick Malahide) soliloquising sections of his memoirs. As José van Dijck indicates, re-enactments are usually twinned with the exposition of an authority such as a scientist with the result being that ‘a fiction effect (is) made subordinate to the reality effect.’ In this documentary the realistic strand is spearheaded by contemporary footage of a training ship, Eye of the Wind, and the recreation of early navigation techniques, accompanied by interjections from William Andrewes, curator of Historic Scientific Instruments from Harvard University. A third strand utilises computer enhanced or generated montages together with the voiceover to explain scientific ideas that cannot be demonstrated in any of the other strands.

The programme makers marshal all three strands together to explain the theory behind longitude in even clearer detail than any of the other three media should allow. The rate of knots is demonstrated using the non-diagetic words of expert Andrewes over footage of a practical demonstration by the crew of the Eye of the Wind. The explanation of the vertical lines and the degrees between, are centred on two computer-animated sequences, each of which are presented in the same visual style. Silvestone argues that science on television should be presented to an audience of ‘presumed non-specialised and non-student audience’ and on this occasion the information is as clear as possible with an uncomplicated voiceover and deceptively simple imagery. Watching a swirling animated globe covered in a map contemporaneous with Harrison’s time, floating through a sepia universe, the audience is able to grasp that this is a historic issue dating back many centuries. In each sequence the globe is animated simultaneously with the voice over illuminating the science at hand – the latitudinal and longitudinal lines being removed, for example, to indicate to the audience which is which.

In essentially adapting the book into a documentary format, the programme makers take the opportunity to explain visually those elements that Dava Sobel’s book could only describe textually and metaphorically. The audience’s understanding of the science changes because they are able to appreciate it representationally rather than within their own imagination. That said, because it is an adaptation, those elements that changed the understanding of the science, the Harrison as hero narrative and the supposed inadequacies of the lunar method are also apparent; the computer animated sections are even employed later to present humorously the apparently less serious attempts at finding the answer, such as the ‘howling dog’ method. This has the effect of compromising the balance of a series that according to Carl Gardner and Robert M. Young is ‘unique in remaining totally expository’ and ‘neutral’ potentially fogging the audience’s understanding of the whole subject.

The Channel Four mini-series (broadcast as the linchpin of their millennium coverage on the 2nd and 3rd January 2000) is a wholly dramatic construct presenting the story of John Harrison. The programme essentially adapts as an adventure narrative, chapters seven to thirteen of the Longitude book. Unlike the Horizon producers, the intent of writer and director Charles Sturridge was not educational since he had been commissioned to produce something wholly entertaining, an approach highlighted in a publicity interview for Radio Times magazine in which he strenuous denied that the programme was meant to be intellectually demanding -- he was creating something that was ‘built to be as embracing as possible.’ As Rima and Michael Apple indicate, the science that appears on screen in these historical science dramas is filtered through ‘the demands of filmmaking itself.’ Unlike the book and the Horizon documentary which to some extent used Harrison’s story as a way of making the concepts palatable, in the mini-series the science becomes a slave to the narrative and is only included for dramatic purposes.

The most significant adaptation change is to split the storyline between parallel protagonists. As well as the Harrison, Sturridge introduces the story of Rupert Gould, the former army officer who had been instrumental in restoring the earlier clockmaker’s timepieces during the 1930s. Gould merits just a few pages towards the end of Sobel’s book, but Sturridge opens out his story, weaving it through that of Harrison. In dramatic terms, this allows the director to create tension when the Harrison narrative lacks excitement (for example during the twenty year creation of the H-3 clock) but it also provides the same capability, as the footage shot on board the Eye of the Wind for the Horizon documentary, of explaining in close to modern context for the audience those scientific concepts that were key to Harrison’s work (and also it has to be said underline for the viewer the Harrison legend).

Since the dramatic weight of the story is behind Harrison and Gould, that science which is included in the programme predominantly revolves around the technological innovations of the clocks. For example, in order to underline the evidence of Harrison’s craftsmanship before he became involved in the marine timepieces, one scene features Gould in the roof of a barn introducing the wooden clock and the grasshopper escapement to his daughter in simplistic terms and these are followed by a very expository scene in which the keeper of clock explains to Gould’s wife (in one of the few moments that she would appear express interest in time pieces) that it doesn’t require cleaning. There is little mention of the men who worked before Harrison’s time who attempted to solve the longitude problem (chapters one to five of the book) and the astronomical solution is now reduced to an antagonistic concept that is not explained with any great detail. The clarification of the concept of longitude occurs during two distinct but connected scene setting sequences at the opening of the programme separate from the main narrative, as though an acknowledgement has been made that the audience requires some awareness of these underlining concepts, but that they should not be understood to be as dramatically important part of the ensuing plot.

The first of the sequences is more successful in presenting the message than the second. Both include a narration read by someone presumed to be Dava Sobel (although this isn’t indicated) that outlines the concepts using words adapted from the opening chapter of the book. In the first pre-title sequence the biographical nature of the opening chapter of the book is melded with the pictorial representation of the Horizon documentary, as the lines of longitude are explained to the audience using sepia mock-home movie footage recreating young Sobel’s trip to New York with the beaded wire ball and the globe that Atlas shoulders above the Rockefeller centre appearing at the centre of the frame capturing the audience’s attention. In the second, the weight of didactic explanation for latitude and longitude is left to the narration during a virtuoso computer enhanced helicopter shot that begins floating across in a city, speeds across the ocean and ends in the thrall of the doomed English fleet. On this second occasion, although the accent is still on visual spectacle, because the narration and images are not connected, the audience’s attention is split and arguably the science on display becomes more confusing and complicated, especially since they are denied the ability to absorb the information again as they would re-reading the section in the book.

To conclude. In the Harvard Magazine article, Sobel was able through the words of the academics gathered for the symposium, to communicate clearly the story of longitude, her short textual enhancements improving the audience’s understanding of those concepts whose omission might have rendered the article less understandable. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the author’s narrative approach to the book, highlighting Harrison’s contribution over others, because her writing is accessible and filled with vivid descriptions and metaphor the general audience towards whom the text is focussed is wholly able to grasp the key issues that made the quest for a practicable method so important. In the Horizon documentary, by engaging three different approaches to presenting the information at hand, the programme makers are able to offer explanations in a visually arresting manner with a voice over that is accessible without being needlessly simplistic. The mini-series works dramatically because it does not let the science overshadow the story at its heart, even if those concepts unlike the documentary do become slightly drowned out by the visuals. Although the same essential information is being communicated through these four media texts, each has unique properties that either enhance or betray the audience’s ability to understand the science of longitude.


Longitude: A Horizon Special (1998): Production: Green Umbrella, BBC and WGBH Boston. 45 mins. Directed by Peter Jones.

Longitude (2000): Production: Granada Film Productions. 198 mins (2 parts). Directed by Charles Sturridge.


Apple, R D. and Apple M.W. (1993): “Screening Science,” Isis 84 (4), 750-754.

Charney, D. (2003): “Lone Geniuses in Popular Science,” Written Communication 20 (3), 215-241.

Dijck, J. (2006): “Picturizing science: The science documentary as multimedia spectacle,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9 (1), 5-24.

Dixon, B. (1993): “Plain Words Please,” New Scientist 137 (1865), 39-40.

Gardener, C. and Young, C.M. (1985): “Science on TV: A Critique,” in Bennett T., Boyd-Bowman S., Mercer C. and Woollacott, J. (eds), Popular Film and Television: A Reader (London: BFI Publishing in association with The Open University Press), 171-93.

Govoni, P. (2005): “Historians of Science and the Sobel Effect,” Journal of Science Communication 4 (1), 1-17.

Booknotes interview: Dava Sobel (1999): , accessed 16 May 2006.

Matthews, M.M. (2004): “Dava Sobel and the Popularization of the History of Science,” From the itinerant lecturers of the 18th century to popularizing physics in the 21st century – exploring the relationship between learning and entertainment: Proceedings of a conference held in Pognana sul Lario, Italy. June 1-6, 2003.. , accessed 18 May 2006.

Silverstone, R. (1985): Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary. (London: British Film Institute).

Smith, R. (1999): “The Test of Time,” Radio Times: 31 December 1999 – 7 January 2000, 304 (3958), 28-30.

Sobel, D. (1994): “Longitude: How The Mystery Was Cracked,” Harvard Magazine, March/April, 44-52.

Sobel, D. (1998): Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (London: Forth Estate Limited).

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