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Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 1, 2012
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“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.”
“[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.
Top customer reviews
These multi-national efforts to study and measure the passage of Venus across the sun the author characterizes as "the first global scientific project." This is because for the first time there were multiple national scientific teams working together to gather and collate data from these two events. This is especially true for the 1769 transit, where something like 250 scientists at some 130 locations around the world made (or tried to make) observations.
While the British and French took the lead, there were other important actors as well. Catherine the Great, in her determination to propel Russia into modernity and western European culture, supported Russian participation (which meant trekking to Siberia). Even the future U.S. got into the act, with the involvement of David Rittenhouse and Benjamin Franklin. Sweden also dispatched observers to the far north. Particularly as regards the 1769 transit, it is amazing, considering the limits of 18th century travel resources, how widespread the observers ended up scattering themselves. Often, observer teams had to leave 6 months in advance of the transit date to make their destinations. Such dedication is to be commended.
But collecting the data with 18th century instruments was only half the battle: the next challenge was to collate all this international data into meaningful numbers. For example, should all observations be accorded the same weight, or should some be discounted? Since there were many different data points, how could this all be collated into meaningful ranges. Remember, this was all before the modern computer made the scene. Yet, for all these challenges, the joint computations yielded remarkably accurate findings close to the data generated today.
What was all the fuss about? It would hoped that accurate measurement of the transit would enable these 18th century scientists to accurately estimate the size of the universe and resolve issues for example like the distance from the earth to the sun.
The author has organized and presented her extensive research findings in a pleasant and very cogent format. She discusses some expeditions in detail, others less so. The book is full of maps and helpful diagrams and documents relating to 18th century scientific technology. The author has included a helpful "dramatis personae" introducing the leading actors; complete lists of observers for both transits; a solid bibliography; and 43 pages of valuable notes. However, the main advantage of Wulf's books is that she can explain scientific concepts in a way that we non-scientific types can understand and benefit from. All around, just a very fine job.
Most recent customer reviews
Second, the story itself was really interesting, about how scientists from all across the world worked together to observe a...Read more