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    Wulf on Venus transits of 1761 & 1769
    From: Patrick Goold
    Date: 2012 Jun 1, 11:33 -0400
    Many books on the Venus transit have hit the shelves.  I picked up Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf.  It a lively history of the international efforts to make accurate observations of the two 18C transits.  The book is weak on the astronomical details but it makes very vivid a number of personalities, the institutional framework of science at the time, and the amazing obstacles that observers faced.  It is a thoroughly interesting window onto the 18C, the ambitions of its natural philosophers and their occasional heroism in the pursuit of knowledge.  It is a quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.  One will have to go elsewhere to really understand the astronomy behind the tale but if you want put historical costume on the mathematical mannekin, this is a good book.  One example from the book:  
    As Le Gentil and Pingre criss-crossed the oceans, the British were finalising their plans for the expeditions to Bencoolen in Sumatra and. St Helena in the South Atlantic. Curate Nevil Maskelyne had made sure that he would be equipped with the best instruments but also that he received a suitable liquor allowance - the bill for wine and spirits accounted for almost one-quarter of the entire budget for the expedition.

    A NYT book reviewer had an interesting take on the book: she thought it ungainly because trying to cover both transits made for a confusing, over-long list of characters and "two climaxes." I didn't find the organization ungainly. I like to know the personalities behind the science and, to my mind there weren't two climaxes. The 1761 expeditions were largely a flop.  Too few, too badly placed, unlucky with weather, and inaccurate.  The data was too scattered.  It was a nice set-up for the 1769 re-do.  Wulf brought the astronomer's to life and gave a lot of interesting historical context.  I just thought that a more detailed explanation of how the observations would yield a solar distance, of the method of lunars and of the modern understanding of the cause of the 'black drop effect' would have strengthened the book.   

    Recommended to those interested in history, it is a nice companion to Edwin Danson's Weighing the World: The Quest to Measure the Earth.
    Patrick Goold
    Department of Philosophy
    Virginia Wesleyan College
    Norfolk, VA 23502
    757 455 3357

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