eight years waiting for Venus



 Astronomy Space Gentil Guillaume History Planet Transit Venus

Guillaume Le Gentil was born in 1725, in France. He almost followed the path of the religious life, but he became an astronomer -- a job for which patience is required. And he proved to be a master of this virtue. In 1761, he launched to Pondichéry, a port at Coromandel's coast, south-eastward India. The aim was proceed to an astronomical observation of the transit of Venus -- a phenomenon that happens when Earth, Venus and the Sun are aligned; so, observed from the Earth, Venus crosses in front of the solar disc, covering a small part of the latter.

Such a thing happens in a couple of eight years, separated by more than a hundred years from one each other. For example: there was a transit like this in 2004; before this one, the last couple of transits happened in 1874 and 1882. The next transit of our century (after the 2004 one) is estimated for June 2012. After that, it will only be possible in 2117 and 2125. Thus, watching this phenomenon is an almost unique possibility at the life of a man.

Let's talk about our astronomer again. When Le Gentil's ship was close to its destiny, the information that French people and English people had started the Seven Years War has arrived, and it was a dangerous decision navigate through that coast. So, the decision was coming back. Our man was aboard when the wonderful day for making this kind of observation came up. Le Gentil was benefited with a clean sky, adequate for his task. But, because of the ship jolts, it was impossible to observe.

What could be done, then? Well, I know the times were different, that time had more time, but, even like this, I think it's astonishing. Le Gentil decided -- as he was already at the best place for observing the phenomenon -- to wait eight years until the next transit. No-one can say he wasn't persistent.

 Astronomy Space Gentil Guillaume History Planet Transit Venus
Pondichéry ruins, 1769. (Le Gentil's observatory was at the building on the right of the flagpole)

Anyway... The French astronomer got himself entertained on plat the Madagascar coast; then, he ran through the Indian Ocean and went through a failed attempt of arriving to Philippines. Coming back to Pondichéry, almost seven years later, Le Gentil built an observatory, and waited. He waited, and waited... and June 3, 1761 arrived. The weather was good since some days ago; however, unexpectedly, at the critical morning a cloud put itself in front of the sun and blocked any observation. Hours later, the cloud disappeared, but the transit was already over. We can call it misfortune.

On our days, this man would finish his time at psychotherapy's office or at on a TV show. But we were at the 18th century and, after some time of well-deserved despair, the astronomer was recomposed. At this time, dysentery left him on bed during several months. He departed coming back to France; the ship where he was in was taken by a storm near the Cape of Good Hope, and, after going around Azores, he finally arrived to Southern Spain. Le Gentil crossed the Pyrenees on his feet to discover, arriving at home (11 years had passed), that he was declared dead and, on such situation, had been substituted on two of his functions: as the Science Royal Academy member, and as husband. His wife (who can condemn her?) got married again, and all of his properties had been distributed to his heirs. Next, came a long battle for recuperating his patrimony.

If you think this is a story of great misfortune, I can tell you the end: Le Gentil got married again and recovered a place at the Academy, starting to dwell at the Royal Observatory. He lived for more twenty one years. The Observatory registers include a complaint about Mrs. Le Gentil, who, as it seems, hanged the diapers at the Observatory gardens.

Le Gentil's frustrated attempt of watch the eclipse is at Bill Bryson's work, A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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