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Book Reviews for the
Transit of Venus
by Jay Pasachoff

Excerpted from the Key Reporter, the Phi Beta Kappa Newsletter, Spring 2003. Reviews of Eli Maor: Venus in Transit; David Sellers: The Transit of Venus: The Quest to find the True Distance of the Sun; Michael Maunder and Patrick Moore: Transit: When Planets Cross the Sun; Donald Fernie: Setting Sail for the Universe: Astronomers and Their Discoveries. See pages 15 and 16
See also "A (Not So) Brief History of the Transits of Venus" by Daniel Hudon in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for February 2004, pp. 6-20.

Setting Sail for the Universe: Astronomers and Their Discoveries. Donald Fernie. Rutgers, 2002

Fernie provides a wonderful series of vignettes about a wide range of astronomical matters, each about than a half-dozen pages. Several of them discuss expeditions to transits of Venus.

Though none of the books about the transit of Venus discuss literary allusions, such do exist. Shirley Hazzard's novel The transit of Venus from 1980 and Maureen Hunter's play Transit of Venus from 1992 use both senses of Venus--the astronomical object and the goddess of love. Farther back, Thomas Hardy's novel Two on a Tower from 1883 includes a character patterned after Horrocks and involves observations of the transit of Venus from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, which Hardy had visited.

The Transit of Venus: The Quest to Find the True Distance of the Sun. David Sellers. MagaVelda Press, 2001. #12.95, $19.47
from http://www.bookshop.blackwell.com/ and http://www.amazon.com/

Sellers tells the story of the five observed transits of Venus in his own way, but the cast of characters necessarily largely coincides with those discussed by Maor. Both tell the story of the Englishmen Mason and Dixon, who whetted their abilities on the 1761 transit of Venus so successfully that they were invited to the American colonies to famously survey the dividing line between what turned out to be the North and the South. Sellers writes of the young English captain James Cook and how he voyaged to Tahiti in 1769 to observe the transit. The dreaded black-drop effect that limited the accuracy of the determination of solar-system distances is necessarily features in this and all books on the subject. Sellers brings the science up to date with the discussion of how radar now gives us much more accurate distances than transits provided.

Sellers provides maps not only of the 2004 transit but also of the 2012 event. He provides times that show how superior European and Asian sites are in 2004. Only the very end of the event will be observable in New York in the morning sky, and none will be observable in the western United States, whereas the 2012 transit will be visible from the whole United States.

June 8, 2004: Venus in Transit. Eli Maor. Princeton University Press, 2000. $29.95

First out of the box, not counting Harry Woolf's standard The Transits of Venus: a study of eighteenth-century science from 1959, is a more popular volume by Eli Maor, a mathematician who has earlier written for a general audience about his own field and who is a solar eclipse buff. Maor relates in interesting fashion how Johannes Kepler's predictions of 1627 began the story of terrestrial observations of transits of Mercury and Venus, the two planets with orbits interior to the Earth's and thus the only two planets that could be in transit.

We learn how the young Englishman Jeremiah Horrocks predicted a transit of Venus in 1639 that even Kepler had missed. And he succeeded in observing it! An international symposium at the University of Central Lancashire is scheduled for transit day in 2004, including an attempt at observing the event from Horrocks's original site at Much Hoole, 60 km from Manchester, in whose town hall there is a mural by Ford Madox Brown of the observation scheme. Had Horrocks not died at the age of 23, the history of science would no doubt know more of him.

Maor describes the science involved in predicting the transits and in using the data. He also describes the personalities, including Edmond Halley, who worked out how to use the transit to measure solar-system distances. He tells of some of the dozens of expeditions that travelled all over the Earth to the transits of 1761 and 1769 and of 1874 and 1882. He ends with maps that show where to be to see the 2004 event and instructions on how to observe it.

Transit: When Planets Cross the Sun. Michael Maunder and Patrick Moore. Springer, 1999

As part of the Practical Astronomy series of Moore, a noted amateur astronomer and writer recently honored by being made a Fellow of the Royal Society, this book spends more attention to how to observe the transit. It gives instructions to help photograph the 2004 event. It also discusses other astronomical transits, such as those astronauts may one day see from distant planets. Of course, it also tells the basic historical stories.

Thomas Hardy Novel

The plot of Thomas Hardy's 1883 novel "Two on a Tower" incorporates a transit of Venus. Hardy himself visited the Royal Greenwich Observatory prior to the 1882 transit of Venus. The English astronomer Jermiah Horrocks, who first saw a transit of Venus, is the basis for one of the characters.

The Transits of Venus. William Sheehan and John Westfall. Prometheus Books, 2004. $28
From the Summer 2004 issue of the Key Reporter

In the Spring 2003 Key Reporter, I reviewed four books about past transits of Venus. June 8, 2004, saw the first such transit since 1882 and provided people across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the eastern half of the United States with a good view. William Sheehan and John Westfall’s book about the past transits, their scientific importance, and their expeditionary history was published later than the rest, but it should be on the honor roll. Its substantial scholarship offers an interesting survey of what has been known.

Magazines like Sky & Telescope will present the results of this year’s transit. I hope that book publishers will allow their authors to update their efforts. You can find links through http://www.transitofvenus.info. Whether or not you saw this year’s event, don’t miss the one on June 5–6, 2012, or you’ll have to wait until 2117. Will some child of today live to see his or her third transit of Venus?