Skip to main content

The Transit of Venus – Peter Adds et al ***

Not the Shirley Hazzard novel, nor any one of a range of other science books that have picked on this title, but a strange confection from the New Zealand publisher Awa Press. The publisher’s location is relevant, as will become clear.
Before I read anything about it, I was always a bit dubious about the significance of a transit. Marking when Venus crosses the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, it seemed to smack of the sort of planetary alignment that astrologers get so excited about – the sort of thing that will inevitably happen, but is very ‘so what’ish. However, the transit was to have great astronomical significance, as it enabled the first reasonably accurate measurement of the distance the Earth was from the Sun.
Although the concept originated in the north of England with two fascinating amateurs, measurements would be taken around the world, and it would be a mission to time the transit by Captain Cook that led to the European discovery of New Zealand – hence the rather odd concept of a New Zealand book about a scientific study that initially took place in Lancashire, England.
I refer to the book as a confection as it is a collection of separate essays derived from a lecture series and suffers from all the weaknesses such books tend to have. There is no consistency, no attempt to provide any flowing narrative – so we get articles about early man and Stonehenge (yes, there is a tenuous connection), measuring the transit itself, Cook’s voyages and the future of science all squeezed together cheek by jowl. It also means that there is a fair amount of repetition. Most irritating is the fact that both the introduction and one of the articles goes into very similar details about the early transit observers Crabtree and Horrocks.
The weakest of the essays is the last one, which is a bit self-indulgent, making the valid point that science still has plenty to discover, but in an overly florid and hand-waving way. I was also a little thrown by the comment in Duncan Steel’s piece ‘To the Farthest Ends of the Earth’ that William Crabtree lived ‘in Salford, a city 30 miles away [from Liverpool] in Greater Manchester’. In Crabtree’s day, Salford was neither a city nor in Greater Manchester, which didn’t exist, so this seems rather anachronistic.
However there was plenty of good stuff too. I particularly enjoyed Richard Hall’s piece ‘The Road to Stonehenge’, leading eventually not to the expected location (though it does feature) but the modern Stonehenge Aotearoa in New Zealand. Equally readable and informative was the ‘Voyages with Cook’ section. And there’s no doubt that there’s plenty to find out here about transits of Venus and New Zealand’s often ignored place in the scientific world. But it’s a shame that these pieces weren’t woven into a seamless whole, and were left to stand alone.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…