Sunday, June 3, 2012

Flying Bridges: The Day the World Discovered the Sun [Excerpt]

Features | Space

A French astronomer traveled to Siberia to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, assisting in a worldwide effort to determine the scale of the solar system for the first time

The Day the World Discovered the Sun, by Mark Anderson. Image: Perseus Books Group. Copyright ? 2012.

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From the book?The Day the World Discovered the Sun, by Mark Anderson.? Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.? Copyright ? 2012.

Tobolsk, Siberia
June 6, 1761
The cloud bank to the east glowed red. Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche had been living at his mountaintop observatory, avoiding contact with the superstitious townsfolk and instead looking to the skies. His lot, he'd surmised, was not to make inroads with the locals but rather, as a fellow French philosophe put it, to make "a communication of flying bridges, as it were, that reunite one continent with another and pursue all the tracks of the Sun."

Three days before, Chappe had pointed his nineteen-foot telescope at a solar eclipse, recording in his logbook the exact moment when the eclipse ended. His pendulum clock?which he'd previously set to noon when the sun reached its highest altitude in the sky?read 6:11 am and 4 seconds. He'd already calculated that the same solar eclipse would be visible in St. Petersburg as well. So when he later returned through Russia's capital city en route to Paris, Chappe could then compare notes with observers there. Since the eclipse ended at the same instant, whether seen from Tobolsk or St. Petersburg, the difference in time between these geographically separated measurements was exactly the difference in longitude between the locales. Chappe derived that Tobolsk was 65.8490 degrees east of the National Observatory in Paris. (Today, Chappe's longitude would be written as 68.1862 degrees east of the prime meridian, the British Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. By either standard, Chappe's error was an impressive 0.0719 degrees or 4.3 arc minutes?translating to 3 miles at Tobolsk's latitude.)

The night before the transit, all looked calm. "The sky was clear," Chappe recalled. "The sun sunk below the horizon free from all vapors. The mild glimmering of the twilight and the perfect stillness of the universe completed my satisfaction and added to the serenity of my mind."

By morning, however, the 4:30 sunrise had brought a dark veil. Clouds loitered. As the increasingly cloudy and sleepless night progressed, Chappe paced the observatory floor. His assistants, whom Chappe had woken earlier in the night, left their master alone?knowing they'd only be needed if clear skies returned. "I found myself relieved by their absence," Chappe wrote.

Soon after dawn, Chappe heard a commotion outside. Tobolsk's governor, the local archbishop, and some nobles had assembled at the new observatory to take in the heavenly spectacle. The first light of day shone upon the French visitor whose anxiety grew with each troubled glance at the clouded-over sky.

"The idea of returning to France, after a fruitless voyage, of having exposed myself in vain to a variety of dangers," he recalled, "[with every] expectation of success, which I was now deprived of by a cloud...threw me into such a situation as can only be felt."

Chappe had instructed his assistants to set up a tent outside the observatory with the secondary telescope. The arrangement provided all they'd need to view the transit?but still permit Chappe to perform his own delicate observations with the privacy he demanded.

As the dawn's blush gave way to early morning light, an easterly wind peeled back the top layers obscuring the sun. And with the increasing transparency, the mood both inside the observatory and in the nearby tent lightened. "The clouds began to exhibit a whitish color, which grew brighter at every instant," Chappe wrote. "A pleasing satisfaction diffused itself through all my frame and inspired me with a new kind of life."

To everyone's pleasant surprise, the residents of Tobolsk?so vocal in their opposition to the Frenchman's entourage weeks before?had shut themselves up in their houses and churches, some fearing God's imminent wrath. Today, the armed guards assigned to protect Chappe proved an unnecessary precaution. Chappe instead enlisted their help in moving his nineteen-foot telescope out onto the lawn.

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