Commentary: Connections - A lot of Boloney; August 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Burke; 2 Page(s)
Ihave to confess a fatal weakness for Bologna, Italy. Apart from having one of the oldest universities in Europe, and possibly the most elegant women on the planet, it just so happens to be the food capital of the known universe. And after lunching on tortellini alla panna, you can go savor another work of mouthwatering precision: a giant brass meridian line, inlaid across the floor of the city¿s cathedral. Put there by Gian Domenico Cassini, the hottest astronomer around in 1668. Which was when his reputation brought him an offer he couldn¿t refuse, from Louis XIV¿s right-hand man, Jean-Baptiste Colbert: to run the new Paris observatory. Subsequently, he joined the great national effort there to determine the shape of the earth (which the French thought was not flattened at the poles).
Colbert needed to know such arcana so that the new navy he was putting together would more accurately be able to relate star-fix angles to positions on the planetary high seas (which would be different on an earth that was, or was not, flattened at the poles). This way, French ships would be able to navigate better. And rule the waves. And, perhaps, give the English one in the eye, by snitching the prime meridian from Greenwich and moving it to Paris. Unfortunately for amour-propre, they were wrong about the shape of the globe, which is why I¿m writing this in Greenwich mean time.