Spot on the sun, David Hill

The Transit of Venus
Marilyn Head (ed)
Awa Press, $24.99,
ISBN 978095826972

A few years back, I had to review a self-published New Zealand novel. It was seriously rotten, and I wrote that it “tried to be bad, bold and bolshie, but failed on all counts”. A week after the review appeared, slips of paper also appeared, pasted across all four copies of the novel on display at our local bookshop. Under the self-published author’s logo, the slips read “BAD, BOLD AND BOLSHIE – David Hill”.

Which leads me verbosely to the fact that when NZB asked me to review The Transit of Venus, I was keen. I’d heard some of these Royal Society of New Zealand lectures on radio, and approved. The topic was right up my recreational alley. A day later, the editors got back to me: “Could be a bit tricky. You’ve provided a cover blurb for the book.”

I made puzzled noises. The editors read me the phrase. It was one I’d used in a radio review for the New Zealand Listener. I’d commended the talks I’d heard on air. I hadn’t expressed any opinion on this book. This book didn’t exist then.

Should Awa Press have used my words this way? I’m 99.75 per cent sure they didn’t ask me. If they did, I apologise endlessly. As it happens, I approve of the book as well. And I accept that a published review becomes public domain, to be quoted appropriately. I’m just not sure if my words in Context A should have been applied to the (slightly) different Context B.

Enough quibbling. This is another nifty little publication from Awa. It’s appealing to read and attractive to look at (good size, clear relevant diagrams, maps, photos contemporary and historical). It brings together seven eloquent writers. You won’t need to know much astronomy to read these essays “adapted from” the Radio New Zealand talks. A couple of our local Astron Soc members have muttered that you won’t know much more after reading them. Lighten up, lads: these pieces use the transits as a launch pad to examine a whole range of scientific and historical issues.

What is a transit of Venus? It’s when that planet (silver and beautiful in the sky; hellish in reality, with surface temperatures over 450 degrees centigrade and poisonous, crushing CO2 atmosphere) crawls in front of the Sun as a tiny black dot.

The last transit was 8 June 2004. The next will be 6 June 2012, and should be visible from New Zealand, except that it’s sure to rain. After each eight-year pair, the relative orbits of Earth and Venus mean there isn’t another for over a century.

Transits of Venus have been used to determine that planet’s orbit, measure the Earth-Sun distance, help find extra-solar planets, provide stories for astronomers to tell their grandkids. Indeed, stories are a feature of the essays in this book. Another is the way they place astronomy in relationship to other disciplines. So Hamish Campbell’s lively essay focuses on the geological history of the continent that James Cook’s secret orders instructed him to seek after observing Venus in Tahiti – and a transit of Mercury from near Whitianga. Campbell examines the effect of our separation from Gondwanaland on flora and fauna, why the Chatham Islands are so stable. He has some deft analogies using dairy products, and he even says “bingo!”

Richard Hall takes an anthropological perspective, and outlines the significance of stars to humans several millennia ago for navigation and timekeeping. He’s sturdy in his defence of mythology as record, enjoyably dismissive of contemporary astrology. He gives a succinct explanation of zodiacal symbols, and a useful introduction to Stonehenge Aotearoa. You’ve never seen it? Head to the Wairarapa.

Te Ati Awa’s Peter Adds also sees mythology as a repository of knowledge, in his narrative of the astonishing number of voyagers past/present/perverse who have used night-time and daytime skies to navigate across the Pacific. The Polynesian discovery of New Zealand was an accident? Nonsense, says Adds – very persuasively.

The studies of past transits dominate two contributions. Marilyn Head and Duncan Steel each cover Kepler’s work on planetary orbits, Horrocks’ and Crabtree’s delightfully improvised 1639 observations (paper screens in the living room), the scientific lobby groups that urged Cook’s ostensible mission. Head writes with engaging enthusiasm.  Steel is excellent on memorable minutiae – the Mason-Dixon Line’s link with astronomy; the role of a priest called Father Hell. Anne Salmond focuses – of course – on the 1769 Cook’s Tour. Don’t shoot the natives, urged one advisor; instead “soft music might be played, and trinkets … laid on the shore”. It was necessary advice: Salmond is strong (and stylish) on the gory misunderstandings of earlier contacts, and on the complexities of societies into which Cook sailed.

The most speculative and forward-looking essay, well-placed at the end of the book, is Paul Callaghan’s short philosophy of science (“social relativism is anathema”). It particularly acknowledges the work of New Zealanders: Rutherford in atomic structure; Beatrice Hill Tinsley in galactic evolution; Maurice Wilkins in DNA; Allan Wilson in genetic anthropology; Roy Kerr in black holes. It’s one of several pieces where a spoken voice comes through effectively.

So – plenty of competence and clarity. Occasional and generally successful lyricism. Also occasional pronoun misuse, clunky apostrophising and vaunting biographical notes. Awa Press has a whole fistful of fingers on the intellectual pulse of local readers, and this is another handy addition to their science list. Make sure you chisel 6 June 2012 (one contributor says 5 June; hmm) on a door jamb where you won’t miss it. If you do, you’ll be 105 years older by the time the next transit of Venus comes round.


Writer and amateur astronomer David Hill is occasionally rung by people who think Venus is a UFO.


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