a spot on the sun
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Don't miss out on the last chance to see this event in our lifetime
The Story of the Transit of Venus Across the Sun
Hardcover. 280 pp.
May 8, 2012. Da Capo Press.
On June 5, 2012, a rare astronomical phenomenon will take place for the final time in the lifetimes of anybody reading this as Venus will pass directly between the Earth and the Sun. Observers in certain parts of the world will be able to see the tiny black dot of Venus traveling across the surface of the blazing sun -- an event that takes place no more than twice per century and won't happen again until December 10, 2117. While the last transit of Venus was only eight years ago, on June 8, 2004, the previous transits of Venus were in December 1874 and December 1882. Venus's transit is one of the rarest astronomical occurrences that scientists are able to predict, and they have provided valuable opportunities for understanding the physical dimensions of our solar system.
The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus (Da Capo Press, May 8, 2012), Mark Anderson reveals the story behind the scientists and explorers who traveled to distant parts of a still largely unmapped world in order to track the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769 in hopes of unlocking some of the secrets of our solar system and modernizing measurements and navigation methods here on Earth.
After an unsuccessful attempt in 1761 by the leading powers of a world at war to get accurate readings on Venus's transit, peace had settled throughout Europe and the world's top astronomers, explorers, mathematicians, and naval officers set out to distant points on the globe to try to observe the transit of Venus, record their measurements, and hopefully make the correct calculations and computations to solve some of the mysteries of astronomy. By no means was this an easy task. Not only were these observers traveling to far-off, foreign lands, but they were carrying expensive, delicate equipment -- clocks, telescopes, quadrants, sextants, chronometers, pendulums -- that could easily be damaged at sea, on bumpy overland routes, or by inclement weather. Even if the observers made it to their targeted destination, built their observatories, set up their equipment, and had everything ready for the big day, months and years of work could be thrown away if the skies were cloudy on June 3, 1769 and they couldn't actually see the tiny black dot traversing the sun.
While scores of astronomers -- official and amateur -- attempted to make observations around the world on June 3, 1769, Mark Anderson focuses on three major expeditions that traveled thousands of miles from home and set up shop thousands of miles away from each other to capture the last transit of Venus for over a century. The Day the World Discovered the Sun follows French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche, whose 1761 observations from Siberia didn't provide the answers he hoped for, and his Spanish partners as they crossed the Atlantic, made an overland journey across Mexico and built their makeshift observatory at San Jos? del Cabo in present-day Baja California. In the Arctic, Denmark's teenage King Christian VII invited the expedition of two Hungarian priests, Maximilian Hell and Joannes Sajnovics, who brave harrowing mountain roads, frigid Arctic waters, and the bitter cold and endless nights of a Nordic winter to observe the transit from the northern Norwegian village of Vard?. The English expedition is led by a soon-to-be-famous Captain James Cook and while they're heading to the much more welcoming climate of Tahiti, the voyage through the South Atlantic and around Cape Horn is no less dangerous then the expeditions of Chappe and Father Hell.
All three expeditions are compelling, with riveting accounts of the voyages to the far-flung points of observation, and a fast-paced narrative that has you on the edge of your seat, rooting for each of the teams of astronomers to be able to have the opportunity to actually see the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769 without the threat of clouds, broken equipment, dangerous weather, angry natives, or debilitating illness. Anderson weaves the three stories together seamlessly and The Day the World Discovered the Sun is a book about scientific advancement and adventure that is somehow able to avoid being bogged down with the complexities of science. For those, like me, who are casual fans of astronomy, Anderson helpfully includes a technical appendix in the back of the back which further explains the calculations these astronomers and explorers needed to use.
Mark Anderson's extensive research (and his master's degree is astrophysics) is enhanced by the storytelling ability of a Shakespearean scholar (which he is). The Day the World Discovered the Sun is a captivating collection of stories about a rare phenomenon that also happens to be a valuable scientific opportunity -- not just back in 1769 when the observations of the transit of Venus from around the world helped measure the dimensions of our solar system, but also today, as we prepare for the June 5, 2012 Venus transit.
The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus by Mark Anderson is available now from Da Capo Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Mark Anderson is the author of "Shakespeare" By Any Other Name and has written about science, history, and technology for many publications, including Discover, Wired, and National Public Radio, among others. Anderson is on Twitter @mkanders and has a Tumblr (http://discoveredsun.tumblr.com).
The transit of Venus is an incredibly rare astronomical occurrence that won't take place again until 2117, so you may not want to miss out on June 5, 2012. With that said, looking at the sun without protection is very dangerous and, much like with an eclipse, precautions should be taken. Visit the NASA website on the Transit of Venus for more information and for possible viewing parties in your area. There is also helpful information about the transit and viewing opportunities from the European Space Agency and the National Solar Observatory.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.