In the mid-eighteenth century, one of the great scientific debates concerned the shape of the earth. It was well understood that the earth was round, or to be more precise, spherical. But the leading scientists of the day understood that it wasn’t a perfect sphere. René Descartes insisted the earth was elongated at the poles, shaped something like an egg. Isaac Newton contended that it was flattened at the poles and bulged at the equator. Each of these great scientists had reasons and theories to explain their position. The scientific community was divided between ardent Cartesians and staunch Newtonians. One thing on which they did agree: finding the answer and resolving the debate was imperative.
Determining the shape of the earth meant mounting an expedition to take precise measurements at the equator of the exact length of a degree of longitude. Such measurement had already been made in Europe. Taking these measurements at the equator would resolve the debate. Depending on whether a degree of longitude was longer or shorter at the equator than it was in Europe would provide proof for one of the two theories. Larrie D. Ferreiro tells the story of the Geodesic Expedition in his book, “Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World”.
In this era of GPS navigation, we take for granted how easy it is to know where we are on the globe and navigate with precision to where we want to go. We don’t give it a second thought. But in the first half of the 18th century, a lot was at stake when it came to knowing the shape of the earth. Ferreiro explains why it was so important for colonial powers, like England, France, Spain and Portugal: “As conquests stretched their power into far-flung realms, rulers relied on precise physical knowledge of their territories in order to exploit their holdings and on accurate, long-range navigation to dispatch military forces where needed, ensuring a steady flow of commerce.”
In May 1735, the French Academy of Science-sponsored expedition sailed from France for what is modern day Ecuador. This location was one of the few which were ideal for the work of the expedition. Most locations near the equator were unsuitable or inaccessible, due to hostile terrain or inhabitants. The expedition had everything it needed, seemingly adequate funding, the best equipment, an ideal location and in a remarkable show of international trust and cooperation, the backing of the Spanish government. What it lacked was chemistry.
One would think that for such an important undertaking, the greatest care would go into determining who would lead and participate in the expedition. As is often the case, those selected to go were not always chosen on the basis of merit. The composition of the expedition’s team was determined as much by politics and compromise as qualifications. To be sure, some highly qualified scientists were part of the expedition, but almost from the very outset, the chemistry was wrong.
The appointed leader, a scientist named Godin, was selfish and arrogant. Besides exhibiting a complete lack of leadership skills, he also showed no fiscal restraint. He squandered much of the expedition’s funds on luxuries and a prostitute with whom he had grown enamored. His dysfunctional leadership effectively split the party into two teams. This animosity, an appalling lack of internal communication, disease, war and even the weather, which prevented the teams from taking sightings for weeks or months at a time, stretched what should have been a three to four year expedition into an almost decade-long debacle.
Amazingly, the expedition did manage to finish its work, thanks in large part to two young, Spanish naval officers who were assigned to chaperone the party. They, along with some of the more dedicated members of the expedition, rose above the dysfunction and persevered in their task.
In the end, the expedition was judged a success. The ordeal of this expedition shows just how many things are required for a venture to succeed, certainly persistence, funding and even luck are on the list of critical success factors. I put chemistry on this list too. Sure, the expedition got its work done, finally. But how much earlier might it have finished and delivered the results to an anxious world if more thought had been given to how the team would function as a unit? To believe that simply putting a group of qualified people together is enough to have a winning team overlooks the impact of chemistry, that intangible blend of leadership, respect and camaraderie.
Incidentally, given the tools of the day, the expedition was remarkably accurate. It measured the length of a degree of longitude at the equator at 68.7 miles, within 50 yards of the true length. And, if you didn’t already know this, Newton was right.