Logo IMG


Ebb and Flow

Mordechai Feingold

Tides: A Scientific History. David E. Cartwright. xii + 292 pp. Cambridge University Press, 1999. $74.95.

When in 1687 Edmond Halley presented a copy of Newton's Principia to King James II, he also provided the monarch with a discourse on "the true theory of the Tides, extracted from that admired" book—a discourse that was promptly published. Halley singled out the topic not simply because it illustrated the manner in which gravity accounts for all phenomena of nature—nor even necessarily because it could be expected to appeal to the King given his previous experience with the navy—but, most importantly, because Newton had gloriously succeeded where both Galileo and Descartes had failed. We now know that Halley's enthusiasm was premature, and that old and most persistent problem would not easily yield, so much so that a century later Laplace still considered tidal dynamics as "the spiniest problem" of celestial mechanics. Indeed, not until the late 20th century, following advances in space geodesy and the possibilities opened by powerful computers, did the last vestiges of this intricate global phenomenon give way.

David Cartwright, one of the most distinguished investigators of tidal science, carves for himself a special niche as the first scholar to attempt a comprehensive account of the multifaceted efforts over the past four centuries to solve the mystery of this deceptively familiar natural occurrence. His account, however, is not simply a history of tidal theories. Rather it is an evaluation, arranged in a more or less chronological order, of the scientific content of the publications by the more important contributors to the field. The "minutiae" of historical detail, Cartwright states with a tinge of gratuitous condescension, is relegated to the professional historian, both because in the absence of any secondary literature (save for a few papers on the early modern period) he faced the need to invent the field and because his own "specialist understanding of the subject from many years' personal experience" enabled him to offer an expert panorama beyond the capacities of the run-of-the-mill historian.

Following a brief survey of the gist of the various theories put forward by William Gilbert, Sir Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and John Wallis during the era of the scientific revolution, Cartwright summarizes the significant contribution of Newton—along with the refinements made to it by Daniel Bernoulli, Leonard Euler and Colin Maclaurin in response to the 1738 essay prize announced by the Académie Royale des Sciences. He proceeds by drawing attention to the importance of the tradition of observations and measurements of tides that was undertaken by members of the early Royal Society and later by French savants. With Laplace's innovative global perspective came the next breakthrough in tidal theory, and, following the introduction of harmonic tidal analysis through the work of William Thomson and George Darwin, it seemed—given the possibility of reliable predictions—as if little remained to be done. Consequently, the initiative for further research passed on to practitioners in the new field of geophysics and oceanography, who, although few, turned their attention to a variety of specialized topics that continued to energize the field. And the second half of the book is devoted to a detailed account of the progress that was made to the discipline by such individuals over the past 75 years.

Cartwright's Tides is a labor of love, based on wide readings and sound judgment, and it is bound to remain the standard reference work on the subject for a long time.—Mordechai Feingold, Center for Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute


Connect With Us:

    Pinterest Icon Google+ Icon Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Sm

Pizza Lunch Podcasts

African Penguins"Penguins are 10 times older than humans and have been here for a very, very long time," said Daniel Ksepka, Ph.D., a North Carolina State University research assistant professor. Dr. Ksepka researches the evolution of penguins and how they came to inhabit the African continent.

Because penguins have been around for over 60 million years, their fossil record is extensive. Fossils that Dr. Ksepka and his colleagues have discovered provide clues about migration patterns and the diversity of penguin species.

Click the Title to view all of our Pizza Lunch Podcasts!

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

  • Sigma Xi SmartBrief:

    A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.

  • American Scientist Update

  • An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.

  • Scientists' Nightstand

  • News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.

    To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.


Of Possible Interest

Nanoview: Two Antarctic Tales

Book Review: The Fraught History of a Watery World

Classic Book Review: The Sea Around Us, by Rachel L. Carson

Subscribe to American Scientist