Carol Spindel's "A Line Through the Heart of Paris: The French Prime Meridian"

One of the wonderful things about teaching adults is that I often have students whose life experiences have brought them a great deal of knowledge and wisdom. One day recently, I had my students write collage essays—a kind of essay that puts together disparate bits and pieces of text without explicitly connecting them; the reader has to make the connections for him or herself. In class, I asked my students to try to articulate some of the connections they heard in their classmates’ writing, and one of them said, “everything is connected.” 

It took me back to Mr. Capodilupo’s sophomore English class. We called him “Cappy” for short, partly because of his name, and partly because he used to pace the room in a knit woolen cap and a trenchcoat, as if he had just stopped in momentarily on his way to someplace else. One day, he had us all get up from our desks and go look out the windows onto the suburban street below—the rows of houses, interspersed with trees, rising up the adjacent hill. “Everything is connected,” he said. “Look. Can’t you see it? Everything is connected.” I wanted so badly to see it—I could sense the profundity of the statement—but I couldn’t, not really. Not then.

This is what a good essay can do—it can help us see how everything is connected. And this is what Carol Spindel’s essay, “A Line Through the Heart of Paris, the French Prime Meridian,” does. We enter the universe through a single window—in this case, a bronze medallion, inlaid in a Paris pavement and inscribed with the word ARAGO—we discover the history of geodesy, the development of the metric system, the Da Vinci Code movie, nineteenth century French warfare, electromagnetism, and early insights into climate change, to name just a few of the subjects that Carol dips into in her essay.

This essay appeared online in Guernica magazine on November 16, 2015, just a few days after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks tore through Paris. Guernica published it “in homage to the strength and beauty that is Paris.” Carol Spindel lives in Urbana, Illinois.

Among longitude lines, the Paris Meridian is a diva with a long and glorious past. From 1678 to 1884 she reigned on maps as the Prime Meridian, 0 degrees, the longitude line that divided east from west and from which all other locations were reckoned. Her address is now 2 degrees 20 minutes east, a bit of a come down, although she hasn’t moved. In her youth, her measurements were calculated by teams of scientists triangulating north and south from Paris. This was scientific enterprise on a grand scale, and even, we could reasonably argue, the first project of Big Science.

I had the rare good fortune to meet up with the Paris Meridian for the first time in her inner sanctum on the second floor of the Paris Observatory, a research institution closed to the public. We were living in Paris that year and my geographer husband put our names on a list of would-be visitors because he was interested in the role the Observatory had played in the history of French cartography. Months passed and we forgot all about it. And then one day we got a call: we would be allowed to join a guided tour on an upcoming Saturday afternoon. At the appointed time, we must be waiting outside the iron gates.