May 31, 2020

Review: Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf.

A transit classic!

By now, you’d think that there was nothing new left to say about the transit of Venus. Fans of this space will remember our adventures chasing down the groundbreaking event last year as well as our reviews of the two landmark books The Transits of Venus & The Day the World Discovered the Sun on the history of Venusian transit chasing which we also reviewed. In the end, we’d thought that we’d covered the length and breadth of Venusian astronomical transit lore. But a curious find at, of all places, Middleton Place just outside of Charleston, South Carolina late last year proved us wrong… what, we wondered, was a book on astronomical history doing at a gift shop for an estate in the Deep South? And furthermore, why read such a tome now, with the next transit of Venus occurring on the far off date of 2117?

Turns out, there’s much more to the tale of the measuring of the astronomical unit to be told. Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf recounts some of the earliest days of the inception of the idea by Sir Edmund Halley to measure the transit with hopes of accurately gauging the solar parallax and with it, the all important scale of the solar system.  Wulf is the author of The Founding Gardeners (and therein lies the connection with Middleton) and breathes fresh new life into these tales of astronomical adventure. The globe-spanning quest to document the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus sent observers worldwide in the first truly international astronomical effort. But what really impressed me was Wulf’s take on those old expeditions and her meticulous attention to just how those astronomers of old observed. This is what the backyard observer in all of us wants to know; just how did they observe and measure the Sun? How does one keep a micrometer threaded with spider silk intact through a long and arduous voyage at sea? Astronomers such as Chappe and Father Maximilan Hell were certainly closer to modern day amateur astronomers by direct lineage than they were to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Chasing Venus weaves a fine tale not only of the adventure and romance in a time of astronomical transits, but political intrigue. Many of these astronomers turned adventurers had to contest with the political paranoia of the day. Don’t forget, the 1760’s was also the time of the French & Indian War and the Seven Years War. In short time, the world scene had the American and a bevy of European revolutions to look forward to. Captian Cook was looked upon with suspicion by the Spanish; Le Gentil had to contend with the whims of politics as he attempted to (unsuccessfully) observe both transits in the Indian Ocean region.

But in the end, the expeditions scattered worldwide made the first precise measurement of the solar parallax and with it, had the key to measure the scale of the solar system. Read Chasing Venus for a tale that begs for a proper film and/or miniseries adaptation… 2117 may be over a century away, but hey, there’s always the next transit of Mercury in 2016…


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