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.

Le Gentil is just one of many quirky astronomers profiled by Wulf in this overview of the 18th century Venus transits. Wulf forgoes much of the background science in favor of the personalities of those sent to observe from remote corners of the planet. Swedish astronomers battle boredom in the long northern nights, and a French expedition battles typhus in Baja California. Captain James Cook and his Endeavour expedition make their way to the South Pacific, where curious natives steal and dismantle Cook’s quadrant.

Wulf’s stories come together in a portrait of the first truly global scientific endeavor. Countries sent astronomers to observe the transit in hopes of national glory, but science also benefited. And on June 5 this year, astronomers will follow in Le Gentil’s footsteps, hopefully with a little more success. That day will see another transit of Venus, the last until the year 2117. 

Knopf, 2012, 302 p., $26.95