I uncap my pen this morning in defense of a fellow American, one who finds himself rather up against it at the moment. I speak of our president, George W. Bush. The midterm elections give evidence that he has paid a dear political price for what one might term the nation's stiffening conviction that the man couldn't president his way out of the kind of frail, blood-caked paper bag that they are fond of submitting to infrared analysis on A&E's Cold Case Files. But among the various fiascos laid legitimately at the brocaded cowboy boots of our nuance-eschewing commander in chief, there is one for which he is unfairly blamed: the failure to find Osama bin Laden.
It's certainly a funny business, this failure to find him. In the early moments of the War on Terror, it seemed unlikely the man would evade detection for very long—what with his being the only one of our enemies in this newly declared war to have, you know, a name. Thirty seconds seemed a reasonable estimate of bin Laden's remaining life span, now that he personally represented fully one entire side in what was already being talked about as a proper world war. An hour? Well, perhaps, if he had plastic surgery. But a day? A week? A month? This was crazy talk. And now, of course, it's five and a half years later, and the fact that bin Laden's lungs continue to inhale oxygen and convert it to carbon dioxide certainly seems like the sort of thing for which someone should be held responsible.
This might, I suspect, be the point at which you start to wonder what any of this has to do with Science. The answer, I do humbly submit, is an emphatic something. For if President Bush had not so thoroughly alienated the scientific community in the first six years of his presidency, by now they might have spoken up to make the point that in the particular patch in which Mr. bin Laden is supposed to be hiding, no one has ever been able to find anything.
As anyone who's ever tried to arrange the furniture in their apartment by means of a drawing on a cocktail napkin can tell you, making maps of things can be really hard. The difficulty factor quickly multiplies, moreover, when you're talking about the larger square footages involved with nations, bodies of water, and continents. And yet back in the 19th century, the British undertook the challenge of mapping the entire subcontinent of India.
It took a very long time. Started in 1802 by one William Lambton, what came to be known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey sucked up the entire first half of the century, by which point Lambton and his successors had really only managed to map a corridor of terrain from the foot of India to the great wall of mountains—the Himalayas, the Karakorams, the Pamirs—running along the top. Their method, as strongly hinted in the project's title, was trigonometry—specifically triangulation, the creation and measurement of a series of adjacent triangles. Lambton's crew would establish a fixed reference point by laborious observations of star positions over several months, then measure a fixed distance away from the point with the fantastically precise use of metal chains and rods supported by trestles. The distance to a third point could be determined by erecting a pole atop this newly made line and carefully measuring the angles of the triangle thus formed. With that first triangle established, subsequent triangles could be measured by a theodolite (a triangle-measuring instrument), and ultimately the shapes could be linked together into what became the longest continuous measurement of the Earth's surface ever achieved.