June 5, 2012, Category: Musings

The Transit of Venus

venus-transit-2012-2004Today marks a historical day for one mans struggle against fate and a string of bad events that nearly drove him insane. It is also the transit of Venus. An event that won’t happen again for over a hundred years (it happens in pairs, eight years apart every 105 years). For Guillaume Le Gentil, it marks an dreary anniversary of an epic quest for scientific information.

In the 1700’s, French astronomers used this event to measure the size of the solar system. Guillaume Le Gentil was one of the many dispatched across the world to watch, measure, and document the event to help unlock the secrets of the universe.

He left his wife in March 1760, a year before the event, to travel to his assigned destination in India. During the journey news reached him that war had broken out between France and Britain and so he altered his destination in India to try and avoid the conflict. As the ship neared the destination and the Transit of Venus approached, they learned the British now controlled the area and the ship was forced to return to what is now Mauritius. Without options, he was forced to observe the event from the deck of his retreating ship. Because of the rolling sea, he was unable to observe through his telescope and take the required measurements (it takes my brother long enough to stabilize and set up a telescope properly in his back yard, I can understand why this didn’t work).

As this was the first of the paired events, the next transit of Venus was eight years away. He decided since he’d come this far, he’d just wait it out and catch the next. He went to Manila to record it but the Spaniards were too hostile. He went back to India, where a peace treaty was now in place, and was able find a suitable location a full year year before the actual event. Plenty of time to set up his observatory. And then he waited.

Everything was in place and a project that had spanned over 9 years of effort and planning arrived. The weather had been gorgeous, he was ready. But on this day, fate did not smile on him. On this day, the sky was overcast and he saw and recorded nothing.

After nearly going insane, he pulled himself together and began his return to France (and his wife). The return was no more successful than his earlier efforts, delayed by dysentery, storms, and cancelled ships. After eleven years of being away, he arrived home to find more trouble. He had been declared legally dead. As a result, his wife had remarried, he had lost his position with the Royal Academy of Sciences, and his relatives had plundered his estate.

He fought to get back what he could. It eventually required the intervention of the king but he was able to get his status changed to “alive” and recover his seat at the Academy. He remarried and supposedly lived happily for another 21 years.

So if the skies are clear for you today, enjoy the Transit of Venus this afternoon. I won’t see it because of our lovely Seattle weather (I also missed the recent eclipse for the same reason). But, maybe you (like me) will find inspiration from today’s event and the escapades and disappointments Guillaume faced in his misadventures over two hundred plus years ago.

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One thought on “The Transit of Venus

  • By Lynn W. Henke - Reply

    Guillaume Le Gentil must not have know about the mail. Maybe he was waiting for the internet and email to be invented.

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