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June 1, 2012 / schulerbooks

Schuler Guest Author Spot: Mark Anderson & the Venus Transit

It’s perfect timing for today’s guest author spot — June 5th marks the 2012 Transit of Venus, and our blog post is written by Mark Anderson, author of The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of 18th-Century Scientific Adventure and the Global Race to Track the Transit of Venus! Kirkus Reviews loved the book, and we think you’ll find it fascinating too!

Also, check back tomorrow for a Guest Author Spot Sequel featuring Jenny Torres Sanchez, author of  the young adult novel The Downside of Being Charlie!

Transit Adventures

By Mark Anderson, author of The Day the World Discovered the Sun.

Seven hours of daylight this week will be broken up by a rare spectacle. Less than twice per century the planet Venus appears to crawl across the face of the sun.

And rare as they are, Venus transits are very useful when they do happen. On June 3, 1769 — the day of the book’s title — the scientific world had been looking forward for more than a generation to solving perhaps the greatest mystery in science at the time: The distance to the sun and the size scale of the solar system. (Venus transits allowed precision measurement of the solar system better than any other celestial phenomenon.) However, the best results required observations from sometimes very remote locations. So Captain James Cook, for instance, helmed a ship that traveled halfway across the planet to Tahiti to observe the transit. Cook is one of the three scientists and adventurers at the core of The Day the World Discovered the Sun.

All of this might make a book to be filed exclusively under science history but for the other part of the story that is often given short shrift: Navigation. Namely, at the same time as Venus transit mania gripped the scientific world much of the rest of the world was grappling with one of the greatest mysteries of the century. Discovering longitude at sea may sound academic to us today, but it was a vast and seemingly insoluble problem of life and death. Ships wrecked and many scores of people died every year because those ships’ navigators couldn’t do their job well enough.

And astronomers were the ones who had finally cracked the longitude puzzle. The longitude pioneers in this story are generally also the explorers and scientists racing across the globe to observe the Venus transit. These astronomers had effectively created an 18th century GPS system that could open the door wide to global exploration, economic expansion and colonial conquest.

The global positioning satellite in this case was the moon. In the 1760s science was for the first time able to predict with uncanny accuracy the moon’s exact motion in the sky years ahead of time. So some of these Venus transit pioneers, especially England’s Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, had mastered a method by which a ship’s navigator anywhere on the Earth could observe the moon with a £8 sextant and a reference manual (costing a few shillings) — and in short order discover their exact location on the planet. The long-sought solution to the longitude problem was now easy, inexpensive and at hand.

And Capt. Cook’s inaugural voyage, to observe the Venus transit at Tahiti, would be the celebrated field test for this new and revolutionary method of finding one’s way around the world.

Yet an upstart technology, an ancestor of the pocket-watch, was also poised to bring navigation within reach of mariners and the world’s greatest navies. If it succeeded, astronomers could lose much of the royal munificence they had enjoyed for generations as the likeliest saviors of longitude. Their livelihoods and careers were suddenly at risk.

Here is where the book’s action lies: The intersection of science, technology and geopolitics. Animated by some phenomenal characters, motivated by both the brain and the gut — how to understand our universe? how to save untold thousands of lives by mastering the “haven-finding art”? how, astronomers wondered, to rescue our profession?!! Then add to that an obstacle course of some of the greatest perils of a candlelit age: sailing through polar ice storms and carting through arctic wastelands, journeying across vast stretches of uncharted ocean, discovering remote new civilizations, braving New World epidemics that threatened to ruin a Venus transit mission’s purpose and kill everyone on that mission to boot.

There, in essence, is the material for a good page-turner. That’s what I set out to write.


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