on 23 May 2012
This book on the hair-raising scientific expeditions of the 1760s is a rich and rewarding adventure from start to finish. It's exciting history that was galvanized by some of the most important scientific and political imperatives of the 18th and early 19th centuries: finding life-savingly accurate means of longitudinal maritime navigation; exploring the mysterious South Pacific and beyond; and determining the precise distance from the earth to the Sun, the most critical astronomical unit of measure. All of these and more prompted the cause célèbre of the age: far-flung measurements of the extremely rare transit of Venus, which occurred in 1769.
This book doesn't feel like "science" though, although those factors are well explained. On the contrary, we have mad kings, exotic natives, scary epidemics, erudite Jesuits, stubborn viceroys, squabbling astronomers, wide-eyed naturalists, leonine monarchs, curious common-folk, dedicated scientists, international political intrigue, wild overland journeys, and the gamut of seagoing excitement, for starters.
The various locales journeyed to give us a breathtaking "you are there" window into 18th-century Vienna, St. Petersburg, Mexico, Baja California, Siberia, Paris, arctic-circle Norway, South Pacific islands, London, Barbados, Cape Town, Tierra del Fuego, Copenhagen, Jakarta, Cadiz, Rio de Janeiro, and places in between. The point of the Venus transit was to get readings from many locations, as mutually distant as possible, in order to triangulate a reliable distance to the Sun. And getting to these locations is half the adventure, but certainly not all of it. Greater challenges meet each adventurer upon arrival at their destination.
The intriguing characters we follow include, among others: the renowned Captain Cook; the "French Benjamin Franklin"; two latterly famous fellows named Mason and Dixon (from whence "Dixie" for the American South derives); the aforementioned diligent erudite Hungarian Jesuit; and all of their partners, assistants, and travelling companions.
In the cleverly organized narrative that weaves several strands together at once, there are moments of cliff-hanging suspense in each of these journeys halfway across the world. And there are also many aha! moments for the reader: remarkable historical revelations, recognition of familiar historical names, and moments where something clicks -- either historical, or technical, or even a distant fact learned decades ago -- and makes brilliant sense. It's this living quality to the narrative that makes it memorable and inviting.
The book is a rich, full, thick tapestry of colorful and very real and tangible true-life adventure. I thought it was only going to be about adventurous discovery, but it's so much more -- it's the very human story of characters you immediately care about, come to know deeply, and think about long afterwards.