A scientific adventure tale in which astronomers risk their lives, traveling the high seas in winter, trekking over ice-bound Siberia and facing deadly diseases.
Anderson (“Shakespeare” by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare, 2005) examines the scope of the 18th-century international project to determine the distance between the earth and the sun by measuring the transit of the planet Venus across its surface. He compares it to recent investigations like the mapping of the human genome, NASA's Apollo program and the building of the Large Hadron Collider. In 1761 and again in 1769, teams of astronomers circumnavigated the globe to make precise measurements of the transit. Although England, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia were at war, they collaborated on this major scientific venture, a once-in-a-century opportunity. In both years, Venus was observed and timed as it appeared to traverse the sun, using trigonometric calculations to triangulate the distance. Anderson writes that this was a marriage of advanced science and technology with extreme adventure, resulting in spinoffs such as the development of precision timekeepers and the reliable calculations of longitude. The achievement was commemorated by “the Apollo 15 mission…command module [which] was named Endeavour”—after Captain Cook's ship—and carried “a block of wood from the sternpost of [his] original HMS Endeavour.” In 1769, the ship carried England's crew and succeeded in its mission, despite suffering the tragic deaths of most of its scientific crew. While the trigonometric calculations were state-of-the-art, if tedious, transporting the telescopic equipment, building observatories on the spot, making the observations and braving the rigors of the journey were anything but.
A lively, fitting tribute to “mankind’s first international ‘big science’ project.”