Review of Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian
by Chet Raymo

(Walker, $22.95, 208 pages, June 2006

A Science Shelf Guest Review by Julie Falkner, published with permission of the author

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Walking is often conducive to scientific thinking. Charles Darwin, for example, had a daily routine of strolling around the Sandwalk in the grounds of his home, pondering as he paced. Chet Raymo, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, continues that association of walking and wondering in his latest book, Walking Zero. His six-week walk along a section of the prime meridian becomes the starting point for discussions of a range of scientific and historical issues, interspersed with snippets of his walking experiences.

After a thoughtful prologue, the narrative begins with the debate over the choice of this zero-longitude line. Raymo recounts the efforts of Sandford Fleming, a Canadian surveyor and engineer, to gain international acceptance of a prime meridian. At first it seemed that the British and French would never be able to subdue their patriotic pride long enough to agree on its location. Finally an international delegation selected the Greenwich meridian, even though "it rather assertively sliced across France, effecting a successful cartographical invasion where centuries of British military interventions had failed." From this down-to-earth tale of national pride and patient lobbying, the focus of Walking Zero widens until it comes to a conclusion among the stars.

Raymo's reflections cover a splendid diversity of topics. One minute he's discussing the current definition of the meter, and the next he's made a connection to Eratosthenes, a librarian and jack-of-all-trades in ancient Alexandria. Later, he moves from a discussion of Newton's weighty contributions in his Principia, claiming that its publication marked the beginning of modernity, to Pepys' earthy pleasures as recorded in his famous diary. While acknowledging Newton's genius, Raymo doesn't ignore the man's less celebrated fascination with alchemy and obscure biblical studies. Pepys likewise is captured in all his contradictions: from his interest in scientific developments to his delight in pretty women and his faith in a rabbit's foot.

Elsewhere, Raymo offers an unexpected plea for his readers to rethink the forbidding, dim-witted image of the Neanderthals, inherited from a less enlightened time. And when his walk takes him to a small village in Sussex called Piltdown, he pauses for a pint at the Piltdown Man pub and tells the fascinating tale of a famous scientific fraud.

Raymo is a supreme storyteller. When hard historical facts are not available, he animates his account with memorable imagined scenes. For example, of the achievements of the Alexandrian librarian, he writes, "I like to imagine it happened something like this: A man of unquenchable curiosity, Eratosthenes haunted the marketplace and docks of Alexandria, quizzing caravanners and sailors about the geographies and cultures of the places they had visited." This reconstruction goes on to offer an absorbing word picture of the librarian's eureka moment. Later there's an equally colorful depiction of Aristarchus with a grape in one hand and a melon in the other, explaining to his listeners the vast distance of the sun from the earth.

Darwin's role as the architect of evolution is well known, but when Raymo detours from his meridian walk to encounter this scientific giant, he humanizes him, presenting Darwin as an "open, forthright, and kindly" man who battled with poor health and struggled with his fading faith, yet had extraordinary abilities to observe and to interpret his observations. Raymo writes equally vividly when introducing readers to fossil-hunter Mary Anning: "She came from humble origins and was not adverse to scrambling among the crumbling strata of Dorset's coast in voluminous skirts." Sadly, this intelligent and unconventional strata-scrambling woman did not receive full recognition from the geologists of her day. But some of her finest fossils can still be seen in London's Natural History Museum, which is alluringly described.

Naturally, the meridian walk includes a visit to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the primary reason for the choice of this line as the prime meridian. Raymo stands alone in the Octagon Room, listening to the clocks around him and recalling Galileo's observations of a pendulum. This leads him to some thoughts on timekeeping then and now, and thence to the problem of determining longitude at sea. In 1714 the Board of Longitude offered a huge monetary prize for a successful solution of the longitude problem. John Harrison obsessively took up this challenge, and the result of his years of work was the marine chronometer. Briefly circling back to his earlier comments on Charles Darwin, Raymo observes that when the HMS Beagle weighed anchor in 1831, the captain had an astonishing twenty-two chronometers on board.

Despite the complexity of the topics, the writing is always accessible. Raymo just once resorts to telling readers not to worry about a sentence's meaning. Generally he's concerned to ensure that readers understand the significance of what they are reading, introducing for example "an episode in human intellectual history that is worth savoring" and going on to do exactly that.

He also has a gift for analogy, which is particularly helpful for readers struggling with vast cosmological distances and times: they are made comprehensible with a remarkable playing-card illustration. The diagrams and black-and-white pictures scattered through the book are also very useful, as is the list of further reading. And when it makes sense to do so, readers are encouraged to put the book down and instead do some simple experiments of their own.

Startling images abound, such as "The human abode is a dust mote in a cathedral swirling with dust motes." Those few words conjure up a dramatic picture, giving a far more powerful image of the size of the universe and the insignificance of our planet than any facts and figures ever could.

Raymo is an affable companion and an erudite guide on this scientific wayfaring. Walking Zero will fill readers with a sense of awe at both the universe that we live in, and the dedication of those perspicuous individuals who have puzzled over its mysteries.

Julie Falkner is a New Zealander now living in Canada. Her wide-ranging career has included teaching University mathematics, developing mathematical software, and freelance writing. She loves to read, to travel, and to explore history.

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