The Transit of Venus

Anderson, Mark. The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race To Track the Transit of Venus. Da Capo. 2012. c.288p. photogs. index. ISBN 9780306820380. $26. NAT HIST

In 1769, in one of the earliest examples of team science, expeditions were organized to collect observational data of the transit of Venus‚ which occurs when the planet’s orbit crosses between the Sun and Earth‚ from several points on the globe. Spurred by the data from Venus’s 1761 transit, the natural philosophers of the day knew that the 1769 transit measurements were key to calculating with greater accuracy the distance between Earth and the Sun as well as to better determining longitude for ship navigation. Anderson (Shakespeare by Another Name) tells the stories of three research voyages: James Cook’s to Tahiti on the British Endeavour , French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche’s on La Concepción to the Gulf of California, and the Hungarian Jesuit scientist Maximilian Hell’s to the Arctic Circle on the Urania. Their experiences are woven into an adventure tale informed by diary entries of the time. Astronomers today are preparing for a June 6, 2012, transit, which like the 18th-century transit is the second within a decade; the last was in 2004 and the next will be in 2117. VERDICT Recommended for casual students of history and astronomy.‚ Sara Rutter, Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu

Lomb, Nick. Transit of Venus: 1631 to the Present. The Experiment, dist. by Workman. 2012. 240p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781615190553. pap. $24.95. SCI

Human knowledge of the universe depends a great deal on the ability to determine distances. Until recently, the distance between Earth and the Sun could be measured only by a careful observation of the transit of Venus. Formatted much like a coffee-table book, this volume is not only eye-catching but also extremely informative, making the history of observing the transit accessible and relevant to general readers. Each transit since the invention of the telescope is given its own chapter, in which Lomb (former curator, astronomy, Sydney Observatory; Australian Sky Guide series) includes historical context ranging from international politics to the arts. He also makes mention of scientists like Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who worked on the transit of Venus, but who are famous as the cartographers after whom the Mason-Dixon line is named. VERDICT Colorful and packed with information, this book will please those with both casual and scholarly interests in observational astronomy and its history. Recommended. ‚ Marcia R. Franklin, St. Paul

Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. Knopf. 2012. c.336p. illus. index. ISBN 9780307700179. $26.95. SCI

During Venus’s transit, observers can see the planet as a small black dot against the face of the sun. The transit is a rare event: while the last one occurred in June 2004 and the next will occur in June of this year, Venus will not appear again between Earth and the Sun until December 2117. Like Mark Anderson’s The Day the World Discovered the Sun (reviewed above), Wulf’s (Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation) book is concerned with Venus’s 1761 and 1769 transits, when the international science community dispatched a remarkable set of expeditions to remote parts of the world to observe and measure the planet’s passages across the sun. Their primary objective was to use newly acquired observational data to improve knowledge of the distance between Earth and the Sun and the solar system’s dimensions. Many of the traveling scientists underwent great travails, and several died. VERDICT Wulf well describes the scientific problems and physical trials these astronomers had to solve and endure. Recommended for all readers interested in the history of science. ‚ Jack W. Weigel, Ann Arbor, MI