The Day the World Discovered the Sun by Mark Anderson (2012)

Genre: Nonfiction
Interest Level: 15 and up
The Day the World Discovered the SunThe subtitle of this book actually tells the tale best: “An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus.” For those who paid attention earlier this year, the planet Venus crossed in front of the sun, a celestial spectacle that won’t happen again for a century. These transits come in pairs, eight years apart, for some reason I don’t understand. It happened in 1761 and 1769, and it is the second transit of the 18th century that spurred the race that is given close attention in this fascinating, accessible book. Anderson follows several scientists of the day who gained royal support for the voyage as several countries both competed and collaborated to get astronomers and equipment into position to view the transit, from Tahiti to Mexico to Norway. Why the fuss? Edmund Halley (of Halley’s comet) had theorized that comparing the transits of 1761 and 1769 would give scientists the tools needed to final calculate the distance between the earth and the sun – the astronomical unit (AU), and thus the size of the solar system. More practically, it would also improve precision in calculating longitude at sea. The narrative is fast-paced and detailed (fully referenced, the book has nearly 30 pages of footnotes), with enough science to explain what the teams are after and why, without losing those of us who don’t really remember our trigonometry. (A technical appendix is a nice touch for those interested and inclined – I understood the first few pages but he soon lost me.) Along the way readers will learn about Danish politics, linguistic similarities between Hungarian and Finnish, typhoid in the New World, and the naval career of Captain James Cook. Anderson even connects the story to the 21st century for his readers by linking the 1769 transit race to modern scientific programs and the development of supercomputers. An excellent choice for stargazers, armchair adventurers and historians.
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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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