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

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…