Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Book review: The Day The World Discovered the Sun

The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of VenusThe Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus by Mark Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the early 18th century astronomer Edmond Halley determined that the Transit of Venus represented the best opportunity to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun... and from there the size of the entire known solar system.

There was just one problem. Venus crosses the Sun (as seen from the Earth) only twice every 125 years or so. Halley made his proposal in 1716, but the next Transit wouldn't be until 1761.

The Day the World Discovered the Sun traces the adventures of several teams of astronomers that fanned out across the globe to track the next two Transits in 1761 and 1769 in order to better understand our place in the Universe... quite literally.


But this was at a time when traveling across the oceans was a time-consuming, life-threatening endeavor at the best of times. The heroes of this story had to contend with everything from disease to politics to bad weather... which is a lot more dangerous than it sounds when you're stuck out at sea or trudging through Siberia. It also has a way of obstructing your view of the sky.

Anderson's book plays out like an adventure story with bits of math and science thrown in for good measure. But it's also a bit of a history lesson, describing the world as it stood in the mid and late 18th century regarding travel, medicine, science, and more.

But it's not a textbook. It's a light read about the adventures of several teams of explorers... and the results of their explorations. You just happen to learn a bit about astronomy, geography, and the discovery of New Zealand, Australia, and kangaroos along the way.

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