Chasing Venus - Book Review

30 March 2015

About 250 years ago, a few men had a goal which would allow us to know the exact distance between the Sun and the Earth. Till then, all astronomical distances were measured relative to this distance, popularized by Kepler, and commonly known as the Astronomical Unit (AU). It was an age when astronomy was a science of precise measurements. Assistants were hired on their eyesight and ability to calculate and endure long cold nights just staring through instruments. It was one of the most boring jobs you could have, with spirit and liquor your prize. Inexplicably beautiful celestial phenomenon, eclipse, had inspired many young men of the century who later on became great astronomers to be written down in history, but all at least once had been frustrated over their monotonous lives.

We take the modern international scientific collaboration for granted. This book is not just an account of the journeys across the globe to fulfill a common goal, but a historical saga of heroic deeds and brave measures taken by timid Men of Letters. Scientific institutions came together in the name of science but it was near impossible to convince their monarchs to cooperate amidst the Seven Years’ War. Huge sums were to be drawn out of treasury. Astronomy is a unique science in a way that you do not get to design the experiment, or do it over. You are just an observer. There are no second chances. In this case, the set of opportunities was once to come in their lifetime, only to repeat more than a century later. The inevitable human error combined with your misfortune, you never know when and where do the clouds appear, will cost more than your pride.

That was not all. They did not have a precise measure of longitudes or good maps. The Royal Society had a “Longitude Prize” summing over to 200 times the annual salary of the Astronomer Royal to the discoverer of such a method. Leave alone unexplored corners of the world, the longitude difference between established observatories in Paris and London was not precisely known. It took months to cover hours of journey in modern terms, days to convey information that takes less time than human perception today. Sickness would lie in foreign lands as medicine was not advanced. You would have to escape battleships of enemy nations.

The face of science across the world was about to be changed. On various accounts, men failed, but mankind was to win. Soft-hearted men of natural philosophy filled themselves with courage and embarked on expeditions across warring nations, frozen rivers, rough terrain, stormy seas, diseased landscapes, all to fulfill the dream of Edmund Halley. It was all in the name of science. The goal was to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun.

You can find the book here.