What the transit of Venus looked like to Captain Cook

In 1769, Captain James Cook was part of a massive, coordinated effort to document the transit of Venus from multiple spots around the globe. It was all part of calculating the size of the solar system, and you can read about it in Andrea Wulf's new book, Chasing Venus.

Read more about Chasing Venus at the Brain Pickings blog

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  1. Cook is the main reason I’m so excited about the Transit. I don’t know a thing about astronomy, but when it comes to age of sail exploration…

    Going to bed now so I can be up in time for the pretty. Thanks for the book tip! Wishlisted.

  2. I just happen to be reading Alan Villiers’ 1967 biography “Captain James Cook,” which I recommend with a hearty yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

  3. They’ve just shown that on BBC’s The Transit of Venus, while on the same island that Cook took his measurements. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jszy4 The measurements from everyone meant in the late 1700s  they were able to calculate the distance on Venus within 1% accuracy.

  4. I’m always amazed and tremendously impressed that some humans were able to pull all this scientific stuff off back then amidst all the religious dogma and superstition holding so many back.  It also reminds me of how incredibly stupid I am compared to these people.

    1. Though Cook first crewed aboard a ship called Freelove, he was indeed a lifelong Christian. Killed and skinned, of course, by heathens.

      1. Cook?  I’m referring to the scientists like Sir Edmund Halley who headed the entire thing up.

        Halley was decidedly an atheist, by the way.

        1. Oh, scientists. Like Descartes, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Leibniz, Swedenborg, Linnaeus, Euler, Priestley, Faraday, Mendel. My bad.

          1. No, like Sir Edmund Halley who headed the entire thing up and none of the people you brought up had anything to do with this, BTW.  So, yes… your bad.

            By the way, I’m glad you brought up Descartes because despite his own claims of being a Catholic he was often dogged with dogmatic people saying he was a deist or atheist because of his work.

            Once again, back to my point.  I’m always amazed and tremendously impressed that some humans were able to pull all this scientific stuff off back then amidst all the religious dogma and superstition holding so many back.

        2. Okay. Among the observers on Halley’s team:

          Swedish Naturalist Daniel Solander, Lutheran, son of reverend.
          French Astronomer Alexandre Guy Pingre, Theology Professor, priest.
          British Astronomer, the Reverend Thomas Hornsby.

          And I’ll bet 90% of these18c Euro scientists observing the transit were Christians of varying intensity. It ignores history to make a gratuitous reference to the restraints of “religious dogma and superstition” which did exist in Galileo’s time (1615) to an era of scientific discovery already in full bloom 150 years later.

          1. It ignores history to make a gratuitous reference to the restraints of “religious dogma and superstition”

            On the contrary, it’s you who’s very blatantly ignoring history.

            Scientists have struggled against religious dogma and superstition throughout history and still do so to this day. What planet are you on?

            Science shaped theology over time, but positive shifts in theological thought towards science was a long, painful and sometimes deadly process and there’s still much conflict.

            During the 18th century the Age of Reason helped to blossom science to what it is day. Is sure as fuck wasn’t the “Age of Religion” that propelled humanity forward.

            So, what’s you point again? Religious dogma and superstition greases the wheels of science or something?

            That’s fantasy.

            I don’t understand why you have such a problem with my statement. At this point, I’d rather that we’d simply agree to disagree.

      2. Hey! We Hawaiians only ate his heart! The rest was given an honourable ceremony, not that the white man recognized it as such. The heart-eating was a show of respect too!

        1. Very true. His bones were saved as relics. If his mast hadn’t broken forcing him to return, he would’ve left as a godlike figure. Timing is everything.

    2. There’s a really nice lecture on exactly this: “Science in Cook’s Time” by Dr Duncan Steel, available here:
      http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/transitofvenusarchives/audio/2516777/4-science-in-cook's-time-by-dr-duncan-steel
       
      The blurb for it reads: “Science in the age of enlightenment, and the quest to find the distance from the Earth to the sun.”
       
      The short version of the lecture is: Science in Cook’s time was really hard. And deadly. Most of the various missions to observe the Transit had members die during their expedition. Cook lost half his crew, and another mission to Central America lost all but one member. Messrs Mason and Dixon also get a substantial mention.
       
      Jon
       
      P.S.: Great FSM I does hate me disqust. I’ve spent the last thirty minutes trying to trick it into letting me post this modest message :mad: BoingBoing, I hope the money you’re making off using this evilness helps you sleep at night :mad:

      1. I’ve spent the last thirty minutes trying to trick it into letting me post this modest message :mad:

        Could you be a little more specific about the problem?

        BoingBoing, I hope the money you’re making off using this evilness helps you sleep at night :mad:

        You’re funny. We’re not making money by using Disqus.

        1. The “post as …” button does (well, did) nothing. Logging in was another rather frustrating exercise in non-functional buttons. There was also a neat sequence when I got two text entry fields, and trying to submit always returned a popup saying I had to enter something in the text box.

          “We’re not making money by using Disqust.”

          Really? You’re havesting all this personal information – or allowing it to be harvested – for no pecuniary advantage? To paraphrase the kids these days; u muzt b doin it rong. And for why? The advice of your own moderators (including you? maybe?) is to compose messages offline then copy-paste them in, even when the blasted thing seems to be working. Surely that indicates an *ahem* sub-optimal user experience.

          1. Disqus sucks. We know that already. But if you think that BB is harvesting personal info, let alone using it, you’re massively overestimating our gumption.

  5. The 1761 transit was also the first time Mason and Dixon (of Mason-Dixon Line) fame worked together.  They were supposed to make their observations for the Royal Society from Summatra, but a French warship rerouted them to the Cape of Good Hope.

  6. All I want to know is…how on earth did they observe it back then?  Did they know about the pinhole camera trick, or telescopic projection?  

    Or did they just burn their retinas out?

    1. People had been looking at the sun for several millenia by then, so that whole looking-at-the-sun-without-going-blind was – more or less – a solved problem. Although I fully expect that getting to that point involved a fair few burnt out retinas. But on the ‘less’ side of the equation,  even in the 17 and 1800s, were oceanic navigators, who had to regularly look at the sun through their sextants in order to figure out where the heck their ship was. Blindness was, AIUI, a very real OSH issue for them.

  7. So… can anyone explain the diagram? Why do the figures appear out of order? They seem to go 1,4,5,2,6,3, Or did Venus really appear to dip in and out again?

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