Jon de Vos: Message in a bottle
June 11, 2012
Last Tuesday the world watched the Transit of Venus.
In case you were freeze-dried, the planet Venus passed between the sun and the earth, remaining visible for a scant six hours. This happens rarely. It comes twice in rapid succession, eight years apart, followed by a 105 year absence, reappearing again in 2117, then repeating over and over.
In the early 1600s, astronomy was a suspect science, grappling with questions larger than man. Galileo spied out his telescope and said, “Look! The earth goes around the sun.”
Pope Urban VIII didn’t have to look, he quoted Psalm 104:5 that says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved,” and condemned Galileo to rot in prison for the rest of his life.
This bummed out astronomers for a hundred years. One under-sung hero who turned things around was Sir Edmond Halley, famous for his comet, but more worthy of awe for calculating orbits of heavenly bodies with astounding precision, with the Transit of Venus being the most notable.
In the early 1700s astronomers, and by now physicists, had answered many of their questions about the universe but no one could figure out how big it was. Sir Edmond didn’t figure it out, but he figured out how to figure it out. It called for measurements from strategic points across the earth, timing the onset and exit of Venus crossing the solar disc.
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It was straightforward but for one thing. Sir Ed figured all this out in 1716 when he was 60 years old. The next Transit wasn’t until 1761. He took quill and ink and wrote letters to all his fellow scientists that must’ve gone something like this: “BTW: 45 years from now, on June 6th, 1761, to be exact, have someone standing on one side of the earth and somebody else on the other. Give them really good clocks to time the duration of the Transit, compare their results and calculate the distance from the parallax.”
It was an incredible discovery and all before Twitter. So this guy sent a message to the future with little idea if it would be heard or heeded.
It was. Sort of. The project was championed by the world’s leading scientists, requiring support not only from Russia and Sweden, but also France and England who were at each other’s throats, battling in the Seven Year War. Nonetheless, scientists were dispatched to the remotest corners of the world with equipment weighing half a ton over rugged terrain with few roads.
It wasn’t very successful. Smoke and cloudy skies obscured many of the observations and there were numerous technical problems with equipment, measurements and positioning. Cumulatively they added up to disappointing results.
They regrouped and read the rest of Halley’s letter: “PS. If you blow it, she’ll be back in eight years and you can try again.”
And they did try again and this time they got it right. Funded by Russia’s Catherine the Great and England’s George III, they enlisted the best minds in the world including Benjamin Franklin, who was responsible for the calculations from America. Over 400 observation sites were established across the world and supplied months ahead of the great event.
They measured the distance to the sun with an unprecedented accuracy, establishing a “Celestial Yardstick” with which to measure the universe and beyond.
Much of this information comes from Andrea Wulf’s highly recommended new book, “Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens.”
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