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BOOK REVIEW: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf

Review by Alexandra Witze

Next time you’re having a bad day at work, consider the travails of Guillaume Le Gentil, an 18th century French astronomer. He spent more than a decade toiling over measuring the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769. By precisely timing the planet’s passage across the face of the sun, Le Gentil hoped to contribute to a global scientific effort to determine the size of the solar system.

Le Gentil made his way to India in time for the 1761 transit, but the presence of English troops forced the captain to turn back to sea. Disappointed, he stuck around the region until 1769, when (spoiler alert) a “fatal cloud” obscured the entire transit. By the time Le Gentil made it back to France, his heirs had declared him dead.

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