In the early 18th century, followers of René Descartes argued that the earth was elongated at the poles, while Isaac Newton contended that it was flattened; a nation that could accurately determine the planet's shape could securely navigate its oceans, giving it military and imperial advantages. Confirming this, however, turned out to require a prodigious effort by an unlikely expedition of French and Spanish scientists and naval officers. The 1735 Geodesic Mission to the Equator dragged state-of-the-art astronomical instruments into the Ecuadorian jungle to make precise measurements at the equator—a saga related here in a gripping narrative by science writer Larrie Ferreiro.
"Ferreiro (whose Ships and Science won the 2007 John Lyman Award for Best Book in Science and Technology) here marvelously details an almost doomed 18th-century geodesic expedition to South America to determine Earth's shape. Ferreiro's skill as storyteller and scholar is displayed in full vigor. Easy to read and fast moving, the book is often dramatic.... Rarely does a history of science volume discuss such events, and rarely does its author present them so well. Ferreiro also masterfully blends political and scientific history, going to lengths to place the expedition's people and events in context."—Library Journal (starred review)