A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!
The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).
Wulf’s book follows the efforts of several different scientists, as they race around the world to precise locations to take measurements of Venus as it travels across the face of the sun on two special days in 1761 and 1769. Why was this so important? Well, as Wulf explains, Edmund Halley (yes, the comet is named for him!) had figured out that Venus’ journey across the sun could be used as an ‘celestial yardstick’ for measuring other distances in space. If astronomers were set up at viewing stations in the northern and southern hemispheres, and they watched Venus going across the sun (timing how long that journey took), they could then use trigonometry to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun – something that had been puzzling astronomers for a long time. Basically timing Venus’ transit could unlock a way to measure our whole solar system! And all they needed to do it was a decent telescope and a reliable clock.
The problem? Not only did these 18th century astronomers have to TRAVEL to the Northern and Southern hemispheres (through treacherous waters, beset by storms and pirates, carrying delicate equipment) but they had to pray that the day would be cloudless, or that the weather would give them enough time to observe and time Venus’ transit.
The international team of astronomers (many of whom were based in Europe) figured out that the best places to observe the transit were far away locations like India, Siberia and Tahiti. So off they went – on voyages across the world that would in some cases be successful and in some disastrous.
This material is naturally exciting and suspenseful. Who will survive? Will they get their measurements?? Wulf’s elegant writing lets the material shine, keeping it grounded in what we do know and freely admits when things are not known. She’s a historian who brings a huge amount of context to this story, and explains difficult scientific concepts very well. I prefer this kind of non-fiction, rather than authors who invent lots of imagined scenes or conversations to spice up the narrative, as I know is common in certain types of non-fiction writing, often in books written about history by journalists. (One particularly egregious example of this from recent years that I tried to read was about Civil War female spies – Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. While it was well written and thrilling subject matter, there were so many highly fictionalized moments of interaction between ‘characters’ that I think it should have been called ‘historical fiction’ instead.)
In general, I prefer my non-fiction history books to be written by historians, or people who know a hell of a lot about the era, because they can provide so much context and extra depth – rather than journalists-turned-non-fiction-history book authors who have usually just stumbled across an interesting historical anecdote they wish to write about, but don’t possess enough in-depth knowledge of that topic to truly do it justice (see: Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée by James Craughwell that I reviewed last year!). Of course – there are exceptions, but just as as a general rule. Also, as a side note, I see that Wulf was a fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, where I was a fellow back in 2016! You can read more about that in my post about Chet’la Sebree’s book Mistress.
I really enjoyed Wulf’s account of these perilous voyages. Her writing definitely captures the personalities of the different astronomers, their rivalries, their squabbles and their determination to get this data. I actually think it would make a wonderful film! I have no experience screenwriting – I’m a poet and fiction writer (as readers of the blog will know), but maybe someday I’ll write about this…
Anyways, I’d definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in the Enlightenment, early scientific explorations, or space. I thought of it recently when I watched the documentary Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know (2020) which follows an international team of scientists as they try to take the first photo of a black hole. This requires that telescopes all over the world take photos of the black hole at the same time, which will then be pieced together to create the whole image. I thought: just like the scientists in Chasing Venus!!
So, as you can see, we’re still at it: still working together to better unlock the mysteries of the universe together which I think is so much more worthy of our attention and our celebrations than the silly billionaires and their silly rockets.
I hope that you enjoyed the post and let me know if the book sounds like one you might enjoy!
- Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf
- Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know, documentary (2020)
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (this 2003 Russell Crowe epic period drama features a naturalist character and I kept thinking about it when I was listening to Chasing Venus on audiobook)
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!
PS Today’s featured image is of an 18th century sailing ship called Royal Charlotte, painted by Robert Dodd between 1764 and 1785, and accessed via Wikimedia