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Chasing Venus

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Chasing Venus

The Race to Measure the Heavens
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The author of the highly acclaimed Founding Gardeners now gives us an enlightening chronicle of the first truly international scientific endeavor--the eighteenth-century quest to observe the transit of...
The author of the highly acclaimed Founding Gardeners now gives us an enlightening chronicle of the first truly international scientific endeavor--the eighteenth-century quest to observe the transit of...
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  • The author of the highly acclaimed Founding Gardeners now gives us an enlightening chronicle of the first truly international scientific endeavor--the eighteenth-century quest to observe the transit of Venus and measure the solar system.
    On June 6, 1761, the world paused to observe a momentous occasion: the first transit of Venus between the earth and the sun in more than a century. Through that observation, astronomers could calculate the size of the solar system--but only if they could compile data from many different points of the globe, all recorded during the short period of the transit. Overcoming incredible odds and political strife, astronomers from Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and the American colonies set up observatories in remote corners of the world, only to have their efforts thwarted by unpredictable weather and warring armies. Fortunately, transits of Venus occur in pairs: eight years later, the scientists would have another opportunity to succeed.
    Chasing Venus brings to life the personalities of the eighteenth-century astronomers who embarked upon this complex and essential scientific venture, painting a vivid portrait of the collaborations, the rivalries, and the volatile international politics that hindered them at every turn. In the end, what they accomplished would change our conception of the universe and would forever alter the nature of scientific research.

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    Prologue
    The Gauntlet

    The Ancient Babylonians called her Ishtar, to the Greeks she was Aphrodite and to the Romans Venus -- goddess of love, fertility, and beauty. She is the brightest star in the night sky and visible even on a clear day. Some saw her as the harbinger of morning and evening, of new seasons or portentous times. She reigns as the 'Morning Star' or the 'Bringer of Light' for 260 days, and then disappears to rise again as the 'Evening Star' and the 'Bringer of Dawn'.

    Venus has inspired people for centuries, but in the 1760s astronomers believed that the planet held the answer to one of the biggest questions in science -- she was the key to under­standing the size of the solar system.

    In 1716 British astronomer Edmond Halley published a ten-page essay which called upon scientists to unite in a project spanning the entire globe -- one that would change the world of science forever. On 6 June 1761, Halley predicted, Venus would traverse the face of the sun -- for a few hours the bright star would appear as a perfectly black circle. He believed that measuring the exact time and duration of this rare celestial encounter would provide the data that astrono­mers needed in order to calculate the distance between the earth and the sun.

    The only problem was that the so-called transit of Venus is one of the rarest predictable astronomical events. Transits always arrive in pairs -- eight years apart -- but with an interval of more than a century before they are then seen again. Only once before, Halley said, in 1639, had an astronomer called Jeremiah Horrocks observed the event. The next pair would occur in 1761 and 1769 -- and then again in 1874 and 1882.

    Halley was sixty years old when he wrote his essay and knew that he would not live to see the transit (unless he reached the age of 104), but he wanted to ensure that the next generation would be fully prepared. Writing in the journal of the Royal Society, the most important scientific institution in Britain, Halley explained exactly why the event was so important, what these 'young Astronomers' had to do, and where they should view it. By choosing to write in Latin, the international language of science, he hoped to increase the chances of astronomers from across Europe acting upon his idea. The more people he reached, the greater the chance of success. It was essential, Halley explained, that several people at different locations across the globe should measure the rare heavenly rendezvous at the same time. It was not enough to see Venus's march from Europe alone; astronomers would have to travel to remote locations in both the northern and southern hemispheres to be as far apart as possible. And only if they combined these results -- the northern viewings being the counterpart to the southern obser­vations -- could they achieve what had hitherto been almost unimaginable: a precise mathematical understanding of the dimensions of the solar system, the holy grail of astronomy.


    Halley's request would be answered when hundreds of astronomers joined in the transit project. They came together in the spirit of the Enlightenment. The race to observe and measure the transit of Venus was a pivotal moment in a new era -- one in which man tried to understand nature through the application of reason.

    This was a century in which science was worshipped, and myth at last conquered by rational thought. Man began to order the world according to these new principles. The Frenchman Denis Diderot, for example, was amassing all available knowl­edge for his monumental Encyclopédie. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus...

About the Author-
  • ANDREA WULF was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She is the author of Founding Gardeners and The Brother Gardeners, as well as the coauthor (with Emma Gieben-Gamal) of This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History. She has written for The Sunday Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, and she regularly reviews for several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Who'd have thought astronomy could be so adventurous? When an international consortium of astronomers sets out in 1761 to points across the globe to measure the movement of Venus across the face of the sun, its members find themselves in the middle of a naval war between France and Britain, crossing frozen lakes and rivers in Finland and Siberia, and navigating fickle tropical winds in the Indian Ocean, all in an attempt to calculate the size of the solar system. This is the stuff of Indiana Jones, not Edmond Halley, who came up with the idea. So it is disappointing that the narration of this book should be so matter-of-fact. Robin Sachs is solid and easy to listen to. His pronunciation of foreign words and cities is spot-on. But he lacks the enthusiasm the author has for his subject. Sachs reads the material well but makes this a book on science, not the adventure yarn it really is. R.C.G. © AudioFile 2012, Portland, Maine
  • Owen Gingerich, Nature "Excellent. . . . Chasing Venus is beautifully paced, alternating between expeditions, with lush descriptions of the often arduous journeys involved."
  • Ian Welland, Astronomy Now "Outstanding. . . . It's the book of the year so far--do not miss it!"
  • Alexandra Witze, Dallas Morning News "Andrea Wulf has now chronicled the 18th-century transit expeditions in a narrative light on astronomical detail but rich in personalities and adventures. The race was the 1760s version of reality TV -- a cross between Amazing Race and Survivor. People waited to see which astronomers would make it and which wouldn't, and to learn whether all the time and money was worth it. Wulf doesn't entirely resolve that question, but she does wonderfully sketch the race for scientific, and patriotic, glory."
  • Iain Finlayson, The Times (London) "Another fine example of such scientific storytelling. . . . Narrated with elegant expertise."
  • Matthew Price, The Boston Globe "The 18th century stargazers whom Andrea Wulf describes . . . would put Indiana Jones to shame. . . . Here is a book both astrophysicists and poets can enjoy."
  • Ann Levin, The Denver Post "Chasing Venus is [a] thrilling adventure story. . . . Wulf's marvelous eye for detail and talent for simplifying complex science make the book, timed for release a month before the last transit of this century, well worth reading before June."
  • Booklist "[An] enthusiastic account. . . . With the next transit predicted for June 6, 2012, Wulf's well-handled history arrives in a timely manner."
  • Kirkus, starred review "[Wulf] clearly explains how Venus' transit across the sun, which occurs every 105 years (and each time does so twice, at eight-year intervals--one will occur in June 2012), gave Enlightenment astronomers a chance to figure out such things as the distance between the earth and the sun. . . . Enlightening Enlightenment fare."
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The Race to Measure the Heavens
Andrea Wulf
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Andrea Wulf
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