Of Voyages and Venus (Mocha Rum Walnut) Cake
A few days before the 2012 Transit of Venus, the second of only two such passages of Venus across the face of the sun that the 21st century would witness, I baked and assembled this cake.
The Venus cake, I took to calling it, because it was rich and rare, with elegance enough to grace the table of the Goddess Herself. But that’s as far as the comparison went, for otherwise the Venus cake was a coincidence: a remarkable concurrence of events without any causal connection.
Like a cloud mass that happens across the face of the sun on the very day that Venus happens across the sun’s visage, eclipsing the 1769 viewing in Pondicherry. A coincidence.
One which dashes all the well-crafted calculations of one Guillaume Joseph Hyacynthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisiere—who was, if that name doesn’t give him away, a French astronomer who spent eight years in Ile de France/Mauritius after his efforts to reach Pondicherry for the 1761 transit had been thwarted by an on-going war between the French and the British, dotting the oceans with enemy ships and putting Pondicherry into British control just as the first transit was about to occur. A series of unfortunate occurrences, all coincidental.
Like a 34-gun French frigate that attacks the British ship “Seahorse” on January 10, 1761 only a few hours after its departure from Portsmouth, and that after days of waiting for the right winds; a ship that happened to have on board Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, “an obscure English astronomer and an even obscurer surveyor,” dispatched to Bencoolen (modern Bengkulu) in Sumatra to collect data on the 1761 transit of Venus. Remarkable concurrences without any apparent causal connection.
But with considerable causal effect. While data from some of the far-flung sites was rich and rare, with elegance enough to compute heavenly measurements, data from elsewhere was series of frustrations. Or blank pages. As Le Gentil wrote after the sun stayed behind a cloud bank for the entire 6-hour duration of the transit in Pondicherry: “I was more than two weeks in a singular dejection and almost did not have the courage to take up my pen to continue my journal; and several times it fell from my hands, when the moment came to report to France the fate of my operations.”
Andrea Wulf’s fine account of the search for a “celestial yardstick” by which to compute the size of the solar system during the 1761/69 Transits, Chasing Venus, tells a fascinating story of international scientific collaboration driven by twin passions that define about all endeavors of the time: for scientific survey and documentation, and for conquest. In 1716, Sir Edmund Halley had postulated that one way to compute the distance between Earth and Sun would be to time the entry and exit of Venus to and from the sun’s face, from different positions across the globe. Rising to this challenge, and marshaling all the colonial resources at their disposal, Britain, France, Sweden, and Russia dispatched their best and most intrepid scientists to the far reaches of the planet: St. Helena, Bencoolen, St. Johns Newfoundland, Vardø (Norway), Roderigue (off the Magadascar Coast), Tobolsk (Siberia), Fort Churchill on Hudson’s Bay, Baja California, Tahiti—and Pondicherry.
Of course, the fact that Pondicherry was identified as a Transit viewing site was not exactly happenstance but a matter of precise calculation, both mathematical and practical: Pondicherry was a colony of France at the time and therefore a logical site for French observation. The fact that no data was actually collected from Pondicherry, first because the colony fell to the British as Le Gentil was making his first journey East (he was fated to view the first transit from aboard a ship returning to Mauritius), and later because of the blessed weather, is of course the way the dramas of history happen—or don’t, as the case may be. And finally, the fact that I’m contemplating that Transit now from Pondicherry myself, unlikely heir to this curious and complex history, is equally a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, and with the right atmospheric conditions. Entirely co-incidental.
Le Gentil’s Observatory in Pondicherry was the building at the right of the Flagpole: ruins of the Governor’s home, after the town was razed in the war with the British.
Wulf documents what this effort to observe the transit to measure the distance between earth and sun really took: extensive discussions and decisions by bodies of eminent scholars; appeals for funding to governments and monarchs; much patience, much risk, much waiting. Although the idea of “self-sacrifice” had not yet become a central trope in the quest for scientific discovery—that doesn’t happen until the last quarter of the 19th century, as Rebecca Herzig writes, when “conceptual traditions of possessive individualism” would associate “freedom” with “the liberty to determine one’s own subjection” (2005: 117)— just about all those who undertook Transit expeditions suffered for science. Le Gentil more than once faced the prospects of death and failure on his 11-year absence from France, all for the sake of collecting Transit data, and had to battle the rumour of his own death, swindle, and the loss of his properties upon return. Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche’s travel to Tobolsk took him across Russia in the dead of winter, with no reliable roads, horses and sledges overturning in snow drifts or needing to be maneuvered through waist-deep slushy ice, only making it to his destination a bare 6 days before the transit. Pingré (stationed on Roderigue) thrice faced shelling and was taken prisoner of war during post-transit work. And Chappe himself would die of fever after the second transit observation in Baja California, his priceless data only making it back to Paris in the hands of a sole-surviving companion, in 1770. Such stories of hardship and self-sacrifice, of men who risked all for a chance to see Venus dramatically cross the sun, are many and common—and made it ironically necessary to assure some returns against capricious odds of failure. Expeditions to collect Transit data had to serve much more than Transit studies alone.
So, while the longer-term resolve to find yardsticks by which to calculate planetary distances never wavered, the more immediate justifications for the considerable expense of such endeavors shifted according to context. Of course, expeditions carried out in the name of science were always-already justifications for colonial expansion, an end in itself: “How far it may be an object of attention to a commercial nation to make a settlement in the great Pacific Ocean,” wrote the astronomer and Reverend Thomas Hornsby of Oxford, “or to send out some ships of force with the glorious and honourable view of discovering lands towards the South pole, is not my business to enquire. Such enterprizes, if speedily undertaken, might fortunately give an advantageous position to an astronomer, and add a lustre to this nation, already so eminently distinguished both in arts and arms.”
Others cited the less lofty but perhaps even more assured benefits to oceanic navigation. Few places in the world had been accurately mapped at the time, oceanic travel was hazardous and expensive, both monetarily and in terms of human life, and as “new import and export markets mushroomed all over the world, accurate navigation became a branch of science that brought wealth and power.” Since gathering transit data involved computing the exact geographical position of viewing stations, it was deemed just as key to testing “longitude methods” or means by which to identify, with accuracy, longitudinal geography. [So crucial was the determination of longitude, the British government offered a £20,000 small fortune of a prize to anyone able devise methods to determine longitude.] The critical importance of transit observations was then justified both in the name of “the science of navigation as well as for the ‘honour’ of the empire.” More coincidences, these drawn upon deliberately into a master narrative about the value of Transit studies.
There were other rationalizations gathered along the way, somewhat more mundane but of equal historical import. Scientific specialization and expertise were of a different order in the late 1700s, and most men embarking on life-changing expeditions in search of Venus had interests in natural history as well as astronomy, were de facto geographers, surveyors, mathematicians, botanists, zoologists, geologists, and, yes, also anthropologists—and could thus claim the rewards of their expeditions on multiple levels. Scientists were not masters of singular domains, but dilettantes of a sort, to their great advantage. All that waiting for winds to turn or ships to arrive at port or simply for the Transit to happen. What did these men do with their time? How did they serve the cause of Science and Empire while waiting?
So it was that Le Gentil, stuck in Mauritius though he ought have been in Pondicherry, made a series of studies of Mauritius and Madagascar in his 8 years of self-imposed, circumstantial exile. Chappe apparently found delicious relief from delay and hardship by surveying Russian women with “taxonomical precision”—as though they were a breed apart, noting those who were “’lively,’ ‘taller,’ ‘very pretty,’ had ‘better complexions,’ or ‘a very disagreeable figure’.” William Wales, dispatched to Churchill on Hudson Bay for the 1769 Transit, wrote at length on the Inuit—objecting to characterizations of them as “apt to pilfer from strangers, easily encouraged to a degree of boldness; but as easily frightened” and suggesting such charitable correctives as equally characterize colonial representations of native communities: “They are bold and enterprising even to enthusiasm, whilst there is a probability of success crowning their endeavours; but wise enough to desist, when inevitable destruction stares them in the face.” In this we catch a glimpse of the Transits as creating what Mary Louise Pratt might have called “contact zones”: “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths” (1991: 34).
It’s telling, however, that in all of these other incidental Transit studies, we never get to hear what any of the native communities actually thought of the Transit or this inconceivably international rush to record and mark it (cf. Radcliffe 2008). What we are mostly left with on that score are idiosyncratic details such as this tidbit: Chappe required the physical protection of armed Cossack guards, as the local peasantry was convinced that the cause of that spring’s unusually severe floods was this very foreigner and the strange instruments he pointed at the sun.
James Banks, botanist on Captain Cook’s Endeavor dispatched to Tahiti, “shows the Indians the Planet Venus on the Sun.”
Data collected from other Transit expeditions is still being published as in this compilation of ethnological and archaeological specimens from the 1874 Transit Expedition. Chappe leaves us with a rationalization of catchall science in an account of his second expedition, this time to Baja California: “Whoever considers the prodigious extent of a passage of several thousand leagues … and reflects that one unlucky moment, the least intervening cloud, might in one day defeat all our hopes, and render fruitless so much toil and expence [sic.], will not wonder at my taking these precautions, to draw other advantages from this voyage: that in case we should be so unfortunate as to fail in our main purpose, we might in some measure make amends to the learned world for this loss. Astronomy, geography, physic, and natural history, were the objects I proposed.”
To say this another way: if other coincidences replace the ones for which we beg, then at least a catchall science does much to divert the appearance of failure, or to make a virtue out of circumstances such as they are. At the end of the trip, there’s still data to report and something to show for, even if it’s not the data we primarily sought, or what we wished to show.
Chappe’s comments point to the great fragility of Transit studies—the compulsion for so much to so impossibly rise and converge for a viewing even to be possible. Monarchs and Yankee merchants alike had to be convinced of value to part with their gold, Admiralties to provide passage, Scientific societies to overcome internal quibbling, rival colonial powers appraised of the merit of collaboration, ships’ captains of the immense worth of skirting enemy encounter and wary sledge drivers of travelling the tundra or skirting thin ice all in the name of “science.” Horses took coaxing, and clouds and enemy frigates alike had to stay out of the way.
While we’ve I think largely lost this sense of fragility in contemporary research undertakings, or are unwilling to make room for it amidst our certitudes, it’s crucial still to recognize that the pragmatic strategies of research are much as they were in the late 1700s. Cori Hayden (2003) writes of the hopes evoked in ethnobotanical collection, of the next erythromycin waiting to be discovered in some shriveled nondescript plant sample, of the promise of large returns, and the actual quotidian strategies used to ensure that collection and research targets will be met in the short term though big hopes may still be dashed in the long, no matter the circumstances. Though we seek still our celestial yardsticks and other holy grails, setting our sights on nothing less than the blazing face of the sun, we make do with what is—the coincidences we can engineer with reasonable assurance.
Back to the future in Pondicherry on June 5-6 2012, for the second and final Transit until 2117. No hazardous voyages necessary to arrive here. A hundred observatories set up, one on every rooftop. The combined data from observations in 1761 and 1769 established the distance to the Sun with near complete accuracy; the globe has been mapped so thoroughly as to make us wonder if there’s anything left to be explored. The studies taking place this time are of a different order entirely; the coincidences that happen are hardly momentous—not even passing clouds can keep us from viewing the transit, wherever it’s happening, on streaming video or minute-by-minute image updates online. We’ve speeded everything up, and made it all predictable. There’s not even time or need for anthropology in the interstices any more.
The only coincidence left is that of cake.
Venus cake, rich, layered, and rare—and the welcome coincidence of a friendship made through incidental comments left on chanced-upon blogs, with art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the imagined smells of creamy rum and roasted walnuts wafting across the ether, and characters eternally in search of their stories, their authors, and their selves.
Here’s to coincidences and what we are remarkably able to make of them, against all the odds.
Note: The recipe illustration below is a collaboration with Shreya Rao, creator of the Ammai strip. Not scientific, not international, but we did work jointly on it all: Shreya did the storyboard and illustrations, while I filled in the recipe elements. We've been at it since early June: nothing to compare with our intrepid scientists' arduous journeys, but long enough for our age of high-speed-everything. My grateful thanks to Shreya for joining in on this lovely little experiment & being such a pleasure to work with. To print the graphic recipe that follows below, click on it for the larger versions on flickr.
Further Transit Reading, suitable as accompaniment to the exquisite Venus Cake:
- Mark Anderson, The Day the World Discovered the Sun (2012, De Capo)
- Maureen Hunter, Transit of Venus (1992, a play)
- Nick Lomb, Transit of Venus: 1631 to the Present (2012, The Experiment)
- Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (1997, Holt)
- Andrea Wulf, Chasing Venus (2012, Knopf)