Book review: Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf

ChasingVenusI’ve been reading more of adventurous science of the Age of Enlightenment, more specifically Andrea Wulf’s book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens the scientific missions to measure the transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769.

Transits occur when a planet, typically Venus, lies directly between the earth and the Sun. During a transit Venus appears as a small black disc on the face of the sun. Since it’s orbit is also inside that of earth Mercury also transits the sun. Solar eclipses are similar but in this case the obscuring body is the moon, and since it is much closer to earth it completely covers the face of the sun.

Transits of Venus occur in pairs, 8 years apart separated by 100 or so years, they are predictable astronomical events. Edmund Halley predicted the 1761/1769 pair in 1716 and in addition proposed that the right type of observation would give a measure of the distance from the earth to the Sun. Once this distance is known distances of all the other planets from the sun can be calculated. In the same way as a solar eclipse can only be observed from a limited number of places on earth, the transit of Venus can only be observed from a limited number of places on earth. The observations required are the time at which Venus starts to cross the face of the sun, ingress, and the time at which it leaves, egress. These events are separated by several hours. In order to calculate the distance to the sun observations must be made at widely separate locations.

These timings had to be globally calibrated: some one in, say, London, had to be able to convert the times measured in Tahiti to the time London. This amounts to knowing precisely where the measurement was made – it is the problem of the longitude. At this time the problem of the longitude was solved given sufficient time, for land-based locations. It was still a challenge at sea.

At the time of the 1761/69 transits globe spanning travel was no easy matter, when Captain Cook landed on Tahiti in 1769 his was only the third European vessel to have done so, other ships had arrived in the two previous years; travel to the East Indies although regular was still hazardous. Even travel to the far North of Europe was a challenge, similarly across Russia to the extremes of Siberia. Therefore much of the book is given over to stories of long, arduous travel not infrequently ending in death.

Most poignant for me was the story of Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche who managed to observe the entirety of both transits in Siberia and California but died of typhus shortly after observing the lunar eclipse critical to completing the observations he had made of Venus. His fellow Frenchman, Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil, observed the first transit onboard a ship on the way to Mauritius (his measurements were useless), remained in the area of the Indian Ocean until the second transit which he failed to observe because of the cloud cover and returned to France after 10 years, his relatives having declared him dead and the Académie des Sciences ceasing to pay him, assuming the same. Charles Green, observing for the Royal Society from Tahiti with Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, died after falling ill in Jakarta (then Batavia) after he had made his observations.

The measurements of the first transit in 1761 were plagued by uncertainty, astronomers had anticipated that they would be able to measure the times of ingress and egress with high precision but found that even observers at the same location with the same equipment measured times differing by 10s of seconds. We often see sharp, static images of the sun but viewed live through a telescope the picture is quite different; particularly close to the horizon the view of the sun the sun boils and shimmers. This is a result of thermal convection in the earth’s atmosphere, and is known as “seeing”. It’s not something I’d appreciated until I’d looked at the sun myself through a telescope. This “seeing” is what caused the problems with measuring the transit times, the disk of Venus did not cross a sharp boundary into the face of the sun, it slides slowly into a turbulent mess.

The range of calculated earth-sun distances for the 1761 measurements was 77,100,000 to 98,700,000 miles which spans the modern value of 92,960,000 miles. This represents a 22% range. By 1769 astronomers had learned from their experience, and the central estimate for the earth-sun distance by Thomas Hornsby was 93,726,000 miles, a discrepancy of less than 1% compared to the modern value. The range of the 1769 measurements was 4,000,000 miles which is only 4% of the earth-sun distance.

By the time of the second transit there was a great deal of political and public interest in the project. Catherine the Great was very keen to see Russia play a full part in the transit observations, in England George III directly supported the transit voyages and other European monarchs were equally keen.

Chasing Venus is of the same theme as a number of books I have reviewed previously: The Measure of the Earth, The Measure of All Things, Map of a Nation, and The Great Arc. The first two of these are on the measurement of the size, and to a degree, the shape of the Earth. The first in Ecuador in 1735, the second in revolutionary France. The Great Arc and Map of a Nation are the stories of the mapping by triangulation of India and Great Britain. In these books it is the travel, and difficult conditions that are the central story. The scientific tasks involved are simply explained, although challenging to conduct with accuracy at the time they were made and technically complex in practice.

There is a small error in the book which caused me initial excitement, the first transit of Venus was observed in 1639 by Jeremiah Horrocks and William Crabtree, Horrocks being located in Hoole, Cheshire according to Wulf. Hoole, Cheshire is suburb of Chester about a mile from where I am typing this. Sadly, Wulf is wrong, Horrocks appears to have made his observations either at Carr House in Bretherton or Much Hoole (a neighbouring village) both in Lancashire and 50 miles from where I sit.

Perhaps unfairly I found this book a slightly repetitive list of difficult journeys conducted first in 1761, and then in 1769. It brought home to me the level of sacrifice for these early scientific missions, and indeed global trade, simply in the separation from ones family for extended periods but quite often in death.

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