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Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens [Hardcover]

Andrea Wulf
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

10 May 2012

On a summer's day in June 1761, astronomers all over the world cast their eyes to the sky to witness a rare astronomical event: the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. It was one of the most important collaborations of scientific history, as by racing to different points around the world and comparing results, these men hoped to unlock the key to one of the most pressing questions of the Enlightenment: the distance between the earth and the sun, which would allow them to calculate the dimensions of our solar system. For the first time, scientists from across the globe came together - despite politics, wars, trade disputes, terrible weather and bitter rivalry - to measure the universe.

Transits of Venus come in pairs, eight years apart - the next one will be June 2012, and won't occur again until December 2117. We will therefore be the last people for more than a century to see a phenomenon that inspired scientists from all over the world to work together for the first time in the history of mankind.

A thrilling adventure story, an inspiring tale of Enlightenment science, and a hugely informative slice of intellectual history with Britain at its centre, Chasing Venus is going to be this decade's Longitude.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann; First Edition edition (10 May 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0434021083
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434021086
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 447,775 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Andrea Wulf was born India, moved to Germany as a child, and now lives in Britain. She is the author of several books. Her book "Brother Gardeners" won the American Horticultural Society 2010 Book Award and was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2008. The "Founding Gardeners" was published under great acclaim in spring 2011 and made it on the New York Times Best Seller List. Andrea has written for many newspapers including the Guardian, the LA Times and the New York Times. She was the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence 2013 and a three-time fellow of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. She is also appears regularly NPR in the US, and on BBC radio and TV programmes in the UK.

Product Description


"Andrea Wulf's story of the chase is an enthralling, nail-biting thriller and will undoubtedly prove one of the non-fiction books of the year. Even if you fail to see the Transit, don't miss this wonderful book," (John Harding Daily Mail)

"A fine example of scientific storytelling about astronomers of the Enlightenment observing the transit of Venus. Publishers got hot for science writing when Longitude by Dava Sobel took off unexpectedly as a long-term bestseller.Andrea Wulf's story of how astronomers of the Enlightenment hoped to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun by observing the transit of Venus internationally on June 6, 1761, and again on June 3, 1769, is another fine example of such scientific storytelling.From the original inspiration of Edmund Halley that led to the active co-operation of Captain Cook, Benjamin Franklin and even Catherine the Great, the enterprise is narrated with elegant expertise." (Iain Finlayson The Times)

"Historian Andrea Wulf's Chasing Venus is beautifully paced, alternating between expe­ditions, with lush descriptions of the often arduous journeys involved." (Nature)

"Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens takes us first to the year 1761 and the phenomena that is a transit of Venus. It charts the story of a truly international effort; to not only observe the transit of 6 June 1761 and indeed its partner of 3 June 1769, but to present the real quest that was to finally determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The author weaves parallel stories involving the French and British expeditions, but makes sure that other delegations from Sweden, Germany, Italy and Russia are given a fair airing. Through this platform we meet the real characters. As political leaders try to prevent bloodshed on battlefields and carnage in capitals, the global scientific community, more appropriately philosophers and astronomers, contemplate their task in the dawn of enlightenment. [an] outstanding book! It's the book of the year so far - do not miss it!" (Astronomy Now)

"[a] truly excellent book.Andrea Wulf tell[s] the rip-roaring tales of numerous expeditions that set off around the globe to observe the Venusian transit of 1761.[She] communicate[s] the verve and energy - not to mention the perilous nature - of the expeditions." (Marcus Chown New Scientist)

Book Description

The fascinating story of the world's first international scientific collaboration.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read 5 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My husband was delighted with this book and said that it dealt with a complex subject very well. It arrived quickly and was greatly appreciated.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Travel back to the transit of Venus 19 Jun 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In the eighteenth century astronmers knew the distances of all the planets from the Sun relative to the distance of the Earth from the Sun but what the actual distance was remained shrouded in uncertainty. The great astronmer, Edmund Halley in 1716 proposed a solution, an international cooperative venture to go to widely separated points on the Earth and measure the position of Venus as it crossed in front of the Sun's disc from . This sounds simple but in the eighteenth century travel to remote places was a major undertaking.
There were only two dates that century when the transit would happen, 6 June 1761 and 4 June 1768.
Andrea Wulf brings to life the human cost of the mission You feel the determination of the french astronomer Delisle to organise the first ever international cooperative scientific enterprise in a time of a major European war, the struggles of observers from different nations to reach remote places from Lapland to Tahiti in time for the transits. You can suffer with observers as they battle with minus 40C temperatures to tranport pendulum closks, telescopes and portable observatories to Siberia or Hudson Bay. Other astronomers dodge hostile warships in voyages to the south seas. The luckless Le Gentil was clouded out on the first transit, waited eight years for the next and was clouded out again. He returned to France to find he had been declared dead and his estate divided up by his heirs. The determined Chappe d'Auteroche observed the transit from a typhus stricken mission in Mexico and died after completing his measurements.
The book is written with real literary flair. It will prove fascinating reading to anyone interested in astronomy or the history of Science.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The second best Venus transit book 18 May 2012
By James E. Morrison - Published on Amazon.com
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.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Missing the most interesting facts 3 Jun 2012
By George Blaszczynski - Published on Amazon.com
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Brief Narrative 30 Jun 2012
By H. Potter - Published on Amazon.com
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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Transformed by the Transit 16 May 2012
By Jane L. Gray - Published on Amazon.com
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.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Start of Worldwide Scientific Effort 18 May 2012
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Next month the world will enjoy a rare astronomical treat. Venus will cross the face of the Sun; it did this in 2004, because these transits tend to come in pairs separated by eight years, but the paired events occur only about every 120 years or so. Of course astronomers all over the world will be looking carefully, and recording, and timing, and there will be an international effort to gather all possible data from the event. We take such scientific cooperation for granted now, but it did not always exist, and it was transits of Venus that started the tradition of worldwide scientific cooperation. In _Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens_ (Knopf), Andrea Wulf has told the amazing stories of the transits of 1761 and 1769, and the expeditions made by intrepid astronomers all over the world to get some idea of the vastness of our solar system. Looking at the sky every night, documenting points of light and their changes might be considered dull; indeed, at the time Britain's Royal Observatory was looking for assistant astronomers and suggested that they be "obedient drudges." The picture here, however, is of adventurous and hardy men (which is not to say they never complained about the hardships) who ventured into the wilds, literally risking their lives for the sake of getting astronomical data. Wulf's entertaining book is a fine tribute to that admirable human trait of scientific curiosity.

The expeditions had been set in motion in 1716, when Edmond Halley suggested the worldwide scientific project, knowing that he himself would not be around for the transits. Halley knew that observers at different points on the globe would only have to measure the exact times that the disk of Venus entered and exited that of the Sun, and that such times could calculate an exact distance to the Sun, something we did not know. The French astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle took up the challenge in 1760, calling for global measurements of the transit the next year, and then for 1769. And so a small army of astronomers, many of whom may have been drudges devoted to scanning the sky every night and going to their homes to sleep during the day, enlisted for the sort of work they could not have predicted when they started their careers. They were imperiled by the dangers of the sea, including the wartime activities of their respective nations. They endured disease (not every one successfully), hardships, foul weather, freezing temperatures, and the distrust of natives. The viewings of the first transit were generally unsatisfactory, but they pointed the way to doing better ones for the second transit. For instance, it was realized that positions that saw the transit with the Sun near the horizon produced less reliable data, because of atmospheric interference, than those seeing the Sun high in the sky, so that observation points for 1769 could be planned with this in mind. There were still inaccuracies; the astronomers were mystified by the display that showed that Venus did not show up as a simple black disk entering the large bright disk of the Sun, but seemed to distort and flow into the Sun, making the measurement of crossing times inexact. The newly calculated distance to the Sun was still not exactly agreed upon, but it was far closer than any that had come before.

It wasn't just that we got a better picture of our place in the universe from these expeditions. The hundreds of voyagers produced better charts of their observation points, as well as descriptions and specimens of plants, animals, geography, weather, and human activity from the regions they traversed. The great inspirational lesson, though, is from the heroic astronomers and crews who endured daunting hardships to work together on a shared goal. "Never before," writes Wulf, "had scientists and thinkers banded together on such a global scale - not even war, national interests or adverse conditions could stop them." This is an inspiring story. May the trust that nature could best be understood by reason, a cornerstone of the Enlightenment, continue to unite and embolden us.
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