T-Mail: The Transit of Venus

Each week, it is my job within the department to send out the emails announcing various department events like “Thursday Tea” and “Monday Morning Coffee”.  As the official “Message Meister” elected by the other grad students, I am supposed to impart some wit and humor into these messages.  Apparently I do this well enough that I have not been allowed to stand down from the position for the last year and a half, despite an over abundance of bad puns and esoteric historical references.

In the hopes that my messages will be remembered beyond the department’s spam filters, I’ve decided to record some of them on this blog.  So here is this week’s Thursday T-Mail.

This week’s tea is graciously sponsored by XXXX, and will start in the atrium at 4PM sharp. I apologize in advance for the length of this email, as I attempt to combine our recent themes of history and astronomy, along with the story of perhaps the most unlucky researcher in history. I’m also sad to report that this will be the final tea of the semester!

Edmund Halley (he of the comet [1]), was an astronomer and scientist born in 1656. One of Halley’s many contributions was to suggest a way of measuring the mass of the Earth. Via a circuitous path of equations (with thanks to Newton), Halley pointed out that by measuring the time it took for Venus to pass across the face of the Sun during its orbit, one could calculate the universal gravitational constant, G, which in turn could give you the mass of the Earth [2]. Unfortunately, Venus does not pass across the sun very often, and to make the calculation would require measuring the time of passage from multiple view points across the world.

As a result, in 1761, the first significant internationally cooperative scientific venture was formed, with scientists across the globe setting up their telescopes and Timex watches to record Venus’ trip. If you’ve experienced the “joy” of attempting a research project overseen by multiple advisors and with collaborators in different parts of the world, you can predict how well this worked out: disastrously. Not only did the participants fail to gather sufficient clean data to reach any reliable conclusions, it led to one of the most unfortunate research stories I’ve ever heard, the story of Guillaume Le Gentil [3,4].

Le Gentil was a French scientist who planned to observe the transit of Venus from India. He set off on his journey a year ahead of time to ensure his timely arrival, but met so many misfortunes en-route, that he was still on the ship when Venus passed by the sun in 1761, and thus was unable to make any measurements. However, the nature of Venus’ orbit meant that it was to pass the sun again 8 year later, so Le Gentil continued to India to be ready for the subsequent passing. For 8 years he arranged his viewing station and prepared his instruments. On June 4, 1769, Le Gentil’s nearly ten year journey was to reach its climax, and he prepped his equipment under clear blue skies. Then, just as Venus was about to start passing over the sun, a cloud appeared and completely blocked his view of the event [4].

Things only got worse for poor Le Gentil. He packed up his gear and headed home, but was further delayed by dysentery and hurricanes off the coast of Africa. When finally he returned to France, more than 11 years after his departure, he discovered that his relatives had declared him legally dead, and had happily looted his estate.

I hope that this tale puts any of your own research disappointments in perspective. And remember: never, ever give up, because the harder you work on a project, the more comical and ironic your failure may be!

[1] http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/comets/halley.html
[2] http://www-istp.gsfc.nasa.gov/stargaze/Svenus1.htm
[3] http://www.amazon.com/Short-History-Nearly-Everything/dp/0767908171
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillaume_Le_Gentil


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