Tuesday, 6 May 2008

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

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