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Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens

3.77  ·  Rating Details ·  364 Ratings  ·  64 Reviews
The author of the highly acclaimed Founding Gardeners now gives us an enlightening chronicle of the first truly international scientific endeavor—the eighteenth-century quest to observe the transit of Venus and measure the solar system.
   On June 6, 1761, the world paused to observe a momentous occasion: the first transit of Venus between the earth and the sun in more than
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published May 1st 2012 by Knopf (first published 2012)
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Feb 25, 2014 Jen rated it really liked it
Shelves: astronomy
Yet again, I turn to my first love--astronomy. And when it's married with history...swoon.

I love astronomical history. It's just fun. And this book possibly earned an extra star simply by being about something ridiculously cool.

Points for when I explained the concept to Gwen she was horribly upset that she didn't get to see it when it happened in 2012.

Basically, the book tells the story of all the astronomers that went roving around the world to measure the transit of Venus across the face of t
I might be being slightly more generous at the moment but I don’t care. It was so good.
Too short!
Well, I understand that a chronicle is a chronicle and a good essayist is not going to novelize the facts, but I wish I could read more about these scientists who fought against the elements to measure the universe. For the first time in history the scientific community connected all over the world, oblivious of wars and grudges between nations. They managed to build up a competition made of the finest instruments and calculations instead of firearms and claiming of distant lands. They
Shane Evans
Jun 22, 2012 Shane Evans rated it really liked it
A few years ago I read a book about the universe where the authors showed themselves watching the transit of venus through some fairly simple telescopes. They mentioned that the event was fairly rare, only twice per century. I didn't realize and they didn't explain what the big deal was all about. It turns out that for astronomers the Transit of Venus is a really big historical deal. About 300 years ago Edmund Halley (yes, the comet guy) realized that by measuring the time it took Venus to pass ...more
Kimberly Kieffer
Jul 16, 2012 Kimberly Kieffer rated it it was amazing
One of the most delightful historical accounts I have read. The author describes herself a historical designer. In this desription she dose not disappoint. The book recounts the 18th century race, by the scientific societies of the most powerful nations, to observe the transit of Venus between the earth and the sun, allowing them to calculate the dimension of the solar system. This endeavor would change the frontier of science forever. The story spans more than 10 years and illuminates what an i ...more
Mar 01, 2017 PSXtreme rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
If this book was a martini, it would be the bestest evar. It is very, very, very, very dry. Only for those with a heavy science fetish.
Nov 19, 2013 Erica rated it it was amazing
This book delivered just what I needed. I wanted a book to get me out of my own head and body for a while: to take me on a tour of the universe, and maybe some scientific exploration of old.

Wulf delivers not only an Enlightenment-age opening quest for reason and measurement, but fascinating details as to the geopolitical tensions at the time. Learned so much about British, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, and French international interworkings within the larger goal of needing lots of measurements, f
Sep 04, 2013 Jenny rated it really liked it
Andrea Wulf's comprehensive account of the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 is detailed and engaging. Her writing style is very easy to read, which is a great asset when writing about a topic that could be yawn-producing for the general public. However, Ms. Wulf communicates what she saw in the journals and first-hand accounts of the transit astronomers: drama, adventure, danger, and the triumph of Enlightenment ideals over the political struggles of the day.

I really like the way the informati
Rob Kitchin
Aug 23, 2012 Rob Kitchin rated it really liked it
Chasing Venus tells the tale of the various attempts to measure Venus’ transits in 1761 and 1769, tracking the wider international collaboration, the perilous journeys undertaken to various parts of the globe by astronomers, and the scientific calculations undertaken. Wulf does a good job at marshalling a lot of interrelated storylines and structuring it into an easy to follow narrative, giving a clear sense of the importance of the scientific task, the science involved, the lives of the main pa ...more
A breezy read about a bunch of astronomers in the 1700s who dropped everything to travel all over the world to track the flight of Venus across the sun (which happened only twice in the century, so viewing it had to be from precise locations at precise times) in order to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun to help with navigational maps.

The key takeaway from this book is that traveling in the 1700s really really sucked. And not like, "oh I have to wait 30 minutes in airport securit
Dave Brown
Jan 18, 2014 Dave Brown rated it really liked it
Recommended to Dave by: Richard Groom, Andrew McCarter
History is so much better understood from the multiple perspectives and adventures of individual participants as is made possible by excellent researcher and story teller, Andrea Wulf. A special treat is learning of the ties among historical figures and events that we knew only separately. This tale intertwines Edmund Halley, Catherine the Great, Mason & Dixon, Captain Cook, and Ben Franklin -- in a collaborative global pursuit!

Without the modern communications and travel we take for granted
Eric Sullenberger
Jun 23, 2015 Eric Sullenberger rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was very excited to read this science book, but it was very dry. It was hard to listen to because there were so many names, dates, and places. It would have been nice to have a calendar and a map along with the book. It was a very thorough and detailed account of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus. The history was more detailed than a webpage I stumbled across earlier this year, but not much more entertaining. The importance of the transits was explained, and you felt heartbroken for the astr ...more
Oct 26, 2012 itpdx rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a very interesting book about the 18th century expeditions to measure the transit of Venus in order to determine the distance of the Sun from Earth. The transits happened in 1761 and 1769. Astronomers traveled throughout the world to time the transits and determine the latitude of their locations so the distance to the sun could be calculated. Wulf does an excellent job of picking interesting stories and details of various expeditions and avoids what could have been a very dry and confus ...more
Mar 24, 2014 Katie rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Wulf tells the fascinating story of the race to measure the distance between the Earth and the sun in the mid 1700s. The story begins with Halley's 1716 call to astronomers to use the two transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Venus transits (comes between the Sun and the Earth) twice in eight years and then does not do so again for over a century. Halley knew he would not be alive to see the transit in 1761 but wanted the scientific community ...more
Bryce Holt
May 08, 2013 Bryce Holt rated it liked it
An entertaining book to listen to, and a real testament to the will of those charting the Heavens back in the 1760's. Still, it's about what these men (mostly men, at least...) suffered to chart the Transit of Venus, and the extreme difficulties of the task. What I loved was that it was truly the first global expedition in the name of science. You see men who lived out their entire life's dream...and other men who were crushed by it simply because it happened to be overcast that day. There are m ...more
Aug 26, 2012 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who like to read the backstory to history.
Fifteen years before the Declaration of Independence, the planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun, just as it did this past June. The transit of Venus is rare; the transit actually occurs in pairs, eight years apart from each other; and more than 100 years between pairs. If you are around in 2117 you can observe the start of the next transit.

Scientists knew in 1761 that they could determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun by recording key points in the transit of Venus from
Sep 17, 2014 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Chasing Venus is an interesting look at the expeditions to observe the transits of Venus (across the sun when viewed from Earth) of 1761 and 1769. In 1691, Edmond Halley had predicted that accurate measurements of these astronomical events from distant places on Earth could be used to measure the physical size of the solar system. ("It's a parallax, you dig?") This is the story on those who followed through on Halley's suggestion. Until this time, the relative distances of the planets to the sun ...more
Nov 05, 2015 Maureen rated it really liked it
This was a detailed chronicle of the efforts of various scientists (and their benefactors) to view two transits of Venus in the 18th century, with the goal of better measuring the universe. Part history, part astronomy, part adventure, this book visits one of the first times that transnational partnerships were forged in the name of science. It is amazing what these people were able to accomplish and communicate (not that the Mayans weren't understanding the stars centuries earlier...) with thei ...more
Oct 30, 2014 Charly rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Anyone. Especially science and history buffs
This was an interesting but not overly engrossing chronicle of international efforts to observe and and record the two transits of the sun by the planet Venus, twice in the decade of the 1760s. The basis of the work is that the learned societies of the world agreed that observations needed to be made from various locations throughout the world. thus the birth of international scientific research. In fact there were international and individual conflicts that made the work interesting. The plan w ...more
May 16, 2016 Paul rated it really liked it
This is exactly the kind of science and history of science book I like in - it's an interesting story about an early wide-scale international, coordinated scientific effort; best of all, she doesn't do that bullshit thing that most science writers do where they try and overhype the importance of the thing they're writing about. The size of the solar system is an interesting but - at least at that point in history - essentially trivial piece of information.

It was a bit hard to follow the extenisv
Dec 15, 2014 Cara rated it liked it
This book is a straight history of the European scientific community's attempts to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun using the transit of Venus and the magic of parallax. I say "straight" because there's really nothing more to it than that. On the one hand, it's kind of nice to read a history book so completely devoid of fluff that it doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is. On the other hand, I had trouble at times finding any of it relevant. It probably would have been ...more
Feb 28, 2013 Ruth rated it liked it
It's absolutely amazing what people will endure in the name of knowledge.

This is the story of the international attempts to measure the transit of Venus (as a larger effort to calculate the size of the universe) in the 1760s. And it is truly amazing what astronomers went through to get their data -- wars, tedious hours of calibrations and generalized boredom waiting for something to happen (I did so love the job advertisements for astronomer positions), pilfering natives (quite humorous), ice st
I didn't give this book enough time, thus only 3 stars. It is detailed...very...and told in an engaging way. Can't believe the scientists in this...that they figured out as much as they did wit the tools they had and then proceeded to the farthest points of the earth to prove themselves right. I've read The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Wulf, and the woman can write. Give this one a go if you are interested in measuring the heavens.
Douglas Dalrymple
Sep 16, 2013 Douglas Dalrymple rated it liked it
A breezy, fast-paced narrative history of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus and the international cast of characters involved in compiling observations and triangulating the distance of the earth from the sun. This was probably the biggest scientific project of the mid-1700s and the first of really global scale. Wulf structures her history well. Her writing is (as with Brother Gardeners) acceptable, but nothing very special. This book would make a fine high-school science text. Personally, I r ...more
Jun 03, 2012 Richard rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, book-club
I saw this book just as the second transit of Vensus was about to occur in June of this year... A well written and research book, Chasing Vensus, is an enjoyable historical account of scientists travelling (and actually cooperating with each other) around the globe in the 18th century in order to observe and measure the transit of Vensus as it moved in front of the Sun. This once in a century event, scientist hoped, can provide data that will allow them to measure the size of the solar system. I ...more
Dec 22, 2015 Amy rated it really liked it
If you're looking for a book about the actual science of how to measure the heavens, this isn't it. Wulf does a great a job of giving the reader just enough math to have the process make sense, but this narrative is about the coming together of scientists in the 18th century amid warring nations to gain knowledge of the universe and science. She tracks the various scientists and their often long, precarious routes to track Venus's trajectory across the sun. They faced great hardships in the name ...more
Alasdair Craig
Jul 09, 2013 Alasdair Craig rated it really liked it
I've long thought that the history of transits of Venus would make for a good book, and here it is! The transits are frequently mentioned in historical books related to surveying, navigation, mapping, etc. Wulf's Chasing Venus is wonderfully readable. I was disappointed that it only covered the 1761 and 1769 transits and none of the subsequent three prior to publication date, notwithstanding these were the seminal ones. It must be said that of the 304 pages, close to 100 of them belong to the bi ...more
Thomas Isern
Nov 25, 2012 Thomas Isern rated it liked it
Shelves: world-history
Interesting subject, competently treated, but not compelling. The general thesis is that the observation of the transit of Venus in the mid-18th century marked a commencement of international collaboration in science. I just didn't find this proven out in the book; it seems to me the efforts of scientists were rather atomized, and sometimes competitive. Which leaves the book in search of a point to make. The descriptive aspect, then, and the personality sketches are pretty good, but Wulf does no ...more
Apr 07, 2016 Alex rated it really liked it
"Chasing Venus" is a history book about why it was so important to measure the times that Venus crossed the face of the Sun. In the 1750s and 60s, scientists had a relative understanding of how far the planets were from the Sun, but they didn't know exactly. It was like having a map without a scale legend. In those days, they were still trying to figure out their own position on the Earth. Yet by using triangulation they could figure out all the rest.

Great personal stories involved and well told
Aug 03, 2012 Ian rated it really liked it
A very enjoyable travelogue-like read on the 1761 and 1769 attempts to measure the solar system by way of the transit of Venus across the sun. The book focuses on several individuals who worked on those efforts to obtain measurements of the transit times of Venus and helps to place them in their geographical and historical context. Those of you looking for more science however may wish to stay away, as it's less focused on that and more focused on the personalities involved in the effort.
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Andrea Wulf is a biographer. She is the author of The Brother Gardeners, published in April 2008. It was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and received a CBHL Annual Literature Award in 2010. She was born in India, moved to Germany as a child, and now resides in Britain.
More about Andrea Wulf...

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“In the day Maskelyne worked on the preparations for the transit expeditions and during the cold nights he observed the skies from Greenwich, no doubt sporting his brand-new ‘observing suit’ – a quilted outfit including a waistcoat, as well as trousers with all-in-one feet and an enormous padded bottom made of thick flannel and fine gold-, red- and cream-striped silk which reputedly Maskelyne’s brother-in-law Robert Clive had sent from India.” 0 likes
“He found a location in the north of the island from where to view the transit, but it was too late to build a proper observatory. Instead he placed some big boulders in a circle and constructed a small hut to house the instruments. It was so crudely built that it gave little protection from wind, dust and animals. The instruments had already suffered from the long sea voyage with some ‘eaten by rust’, Pingré moaned, hectically polishing and greasing them with turtle oil, the only lubricant available. Over the next days, the French astronomer prepared his instruments and observed the movements of Jupiter’s satellites at night in order to set the clock – an enterprise that was sabotaged by the rats that chewed through one of the pendulums. At” 0 likes
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