The Transit of Venus. How a Rare Astronomical Alignment Changed the World.
By several authors
AWA Press1, Wellington New Zealand.
Comprising the collected lectures of the Royal Society of New Zealand Transit of Venus series Broadcast on Radio New Zealand,2 this book has six chapters and an introduction, each by a different author.
Cook's Mistake Discovered! The History Books are Wrong! That is how I would begin an article based on the theory expounded in the opening chapter of this book if I were a journalist. But I am instead a person who admires Captain Cook and enjoys reading about this great man. This is not a book about the Transit of Venus in 1769 but, rather, a series of essays about some of the effects of Cook's First Voyage. Although written by New Zealanders for New Zealanders, I am sure people all over the world will find it of interest.
Hamish Campbell is the New Zealand geologist who wrote the first chapter: "Search for the Lost Continent". He argues convincingly, using readily understandable ideas, that when Cook discovered (or in PC talk rediscovered) New Zealand what he actually discovered was the tips of the vast continent of Zealandia that lies one to two kilometres below the sea level, which could be considered to be "The Vast Unknown Southern Continent". This chapter sets the tone for the book.
There are seven essays in the book. The book has several not very clear black and white images and photos that add interest to the book. All the writers are New Zealanders who are internationally renowned and at the cutting edge of their fields. Only one chapter, that by Anne Salmond, is specifically about Cook, and it is in fact a brief summary of her major work "The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas". The other chapters are based on ideas that Cook had or those that have arisen out of his voyages. The book is mainly about the history and philosophy of science from the 17th century to the present. As the sub title says, "How a Rare Astronomical Alignment Changed the World".
One chapter is called "The Road to Stonehenge". It is not about the UK site but the recently built New Zealand version.3 It discusses ancient naviga-tional methods of exploration by Pacific peoples and links in with comments made by Cook about how Pacific explorers used the stars to navigate to the Pacific islands, including New Zealand.
"To the Farthest Ends of the Earth" is about attempts to see the transit of Venus. It includes a fascinating account of a Frenchman, Le Gentil, who set out to observe the 1761 transit in India but was unable to do so. He decided to stay in the Indian Ocean area doing scientific work and then observe the 1769 transit. After seemingly insurmountable problems he reached a suitable site to find that he was unable to observe the transit due to cloud cover. So overcome was he that he stayed in bed for two weeks. On returning to France 11 years after he left he found that all he owned had gone as his family thought he had died!
I liked this book very much. It is a stimulating book that made me reflect on Cook and science in ways I normally do not. I am sure the book will appeal to many CCS members, particularly as it looks at some of the consequences of Cook's First Voyage and how the world was changed forever by it.
The next transit of Venus occurs on 6 June 2012.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 36, volume 30, number 3 (2007).