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Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 1, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

 
“Excellent. . . . Chasing Venus is beautifully paced, alternating between expeditions, with lush descriptions of the often arduous journeys involved.”
     —Owen Gingerich, Nature
 
“Outstanding. . . . It’s the book of the year so far—do not miss it!”
     —Ian Welland, Astronomy Now

“Andrea Wulf has now chronicled the 18th-century transit expeditions in a narrative light on astronomical detail but rich in personalities and adventures. The race was the 1760s version of reality TV — a cross between Amazing Race and Survivor. People waited to see which astronomers would make it and which wouldn’t, and to learn whether all the time and money was worth it. Wulf doesn’t entirely resolve that question, but she does wonderfully sketch the race for scientific, and patriotic, glory.”
     —Alexandra Witze, Dallas Morning News
 
“Another fine example of such scientific storytelling. . . . Narrated with elegant expertise.”
     —Iain Finlayson, The Times (London)
 
“The 18th century stargazers whom Andrea Wulf describes . . . would put Indiana Jones to shame. . . . Here is a book both astrophysicists and poets can enjoy.” 
     —Matthew Price, The Boston Globe
 
Chasing Venus is [a] thrilling adventure story. . . . Wulf’s marvelous eye for detail and talent for simplifying complex science make the book, timed for release a month before the last transit of this century, well worth reading before June.”
     —Ann Levin, The Denver Post
 
“[An] enthusiastic account. . . . With the next transit predicted for June 6, 2012, Wulf’s well-handled history arrives in a timely manner.”
     —Booklist
 
“[Wulf] clearly explains how Venus’ transit across the sun, which occurs every 105 years (and each time does so twice, at eight-year intervals—one will occur in June 2012), gave Enlightenment astronomers a chance to figure out such things as the distance between the earth and the sun. . . . Enlightening Enlightenment fare.”
     —Kirkus, starred review

About the Author

ANDREA WULF was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She lives in London, where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art. She is the author of The Brother Gardeners, long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008 and winner of the American Horticultural Society 2010 Book Award, and of Founding Gardeners; she is the coauthor (with Emma Gieben-Gamal) of This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History. She has written for The Sunday Times, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, and she reviews for several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (May 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307700178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307700179
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #575,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This meticulously researched and well structured book focuses on the human element of the 18th century Venus transit expeditions. It reads like a novel and you are left with a sense of wonder that people could actually go to such extremes for a scientific objective. I rated it the second best transit book after Sheehan and Westfall, "The Transits of Venus", because Sheehan and Westfall have much more technical material about transit conditions and uses of the observations. The two books are complementary, with Sheehan/Westfall providing the astronomy and an overview of the main expeditions and Wulf supplying many interesting and previously unpublished details on the participants and what they went through. It's a wonderful book and a credit to the author.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was disappointed. The book a very well researched and documented history of how the transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769 mobilized scientist worldwide in an extraordinary effort to determine the physical size of the solar system. BUT the most interesting aspects of this effort are missing. I wanted to know not only the adventures of the astronomers as they traveled to the far corners of the world to do the observations, but ALSO the method they used in their calculations. How did they actually calculate the distance between the earth and the sun? How did they take into the account that during the 6 hour transit the earth traveled in its orbit, the circumference of which they did not know? How did they determine the precision they needed to convince themselves that could indeed measure the distance to the sun with adequate accuracy? How did Hubble predict the transit of Venus to within a fraction of an hour at any place on the globe? The book would have been significantly more interesting if the author answered these and many similar questions.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Prospective buyers should know how slight this book is. The hardcover edition is 336 pages, but in the Kindle edition, about half of it is notes. Most of the text is narrative of the principal astronomical expeditions of 1761 and 1769, concentrating on the difficulty of traveling by ship, carriage, and sledge. The math and science involved are almost totally absent. Nor is there much discussion of the instruments and techniques used by the observers. You could get more science from the Wikipedia article about the transit of Venus and related articles about the astronomers and their instruments. So, although the book is well written, I can't really recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Andrea Wulf has done it again - she has taken technical, historical scientific material and transformed it into a real page-turner. The author weaves a tale of an eighteenth century race against time and weather to observe and measure the rarely seen phenomenon - the transit of Venus. Furthermore, she explains in layman's terms how these measurements were used to not only calculate the distance from the earth to the sun, but also to catalyze an international community of scientists who elevated themselves above border disputes and wars.
For the reader who also enjoyed THE BROTHER GARDENERS, you will enjoy the tie-in to this book as you read more about Captain Cook's journey to Tahiti along with his passenger, Joseph Banks.
The only 21st century transit of Venus is occurring soon. Read CHASING VENUS now so you can appreciate this rare occurrence.
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Format: Paperback
As most reviewers have pointed out, this book was meticulously researched, but that may also be its downfall. Ultimately, it reads like a well-executed term paper, or maybe a PhD dissertation. It does indeed provide accounts of the major expeditions mounted to time the transits of 1761 and 1769, but these accounts lie flat on the page as a list of factual details and descriptions of events. I read Richard Holmes' "The Age of Wonder" a few months before this book, and his account of Joseph Banks in Tahiti is engaging and riveting, bringing to life the collision of cultures that occurred, the personalities of those involved, and weaving it all into a page-turning story. The contrast was clear in this book's coverage of James Cook's expedition to bring Banks to the South Seas, where the facts are recounted without really bringing the characters to life in my mind.

The book also chooses odd, sometimes single-word, quotations from the source material (which is all referenced in the extensive notes). A typical example is on page 159: "The weather was glorious and Le Gentil rejoiced in the beauty of the mirrored surface of the water which, he wrote in his journal, was as smooth as a 'lake'." After a nice summary of the scene in the author's words, do we need to know that "lake" was the exact term used by Le Gentil? I couldn't help but think, either give us a whole sentence or phrase from Le Gentil's journal or simply reference the whole sentence as a paraphrase. The book is littered with these one- or two-word quotes that seem to be a replacement for footnotes rather than adding authenticity to the material.

Finally, I'm not sure the author is completely comfortable explaining the astronomy involved.
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