In 1716 Edmund Halley (He of the comet, although he did not actually discover it – instead he determined that several previous recorded appearances of a comet were in fact the same one reappearing at intervals) published a paper showing how a transit of Venus could be used to calculate with remarkable precision the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A transit occurs when the planet passes directly between Earth and the Sun, and hence is observable as a black dot moving across the solar "surface" as viewed from Earth. Venusian transits are rare. We experienced two in our lifetimes but will never live to see another one; the solar system treats us to two separated by eight years (2004 and 2012) but then does not repeat the phenomenon for more than a century. The next one is in 2117.

Halley did not live to make anything of his idea, dying in 1742 and therefore missing out on the upcoming 1761 / 1769 pair of transits. Other astronomers took up the task, though. A worldwide effort led by Russian Mikhail Lomonosov attempted to coordinate hundreds of observations and measurements from every corner of the globe. Combining all of that data, even with the slow, cumbersome technology available in the 18th Century, would be a gold mine for astronomers. Some historians have suggested that this was the first truly international, coordinated scientific effort. Regardless, a great deal of data was collected and Halley's theory proved correct with time.

Many of the scientists who took part in the Venus effort were or would become famous. A pair of Englishmen, the famous Charles Mason and his assistant Jeremiah Dixon, would later become household names in America when they settled a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland with a surveyed line that still bears their name. One who was not famous, though, was a Frenchman grandly named Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil. He failed miserably in his attempts to make observations in a series of misfortunes that borders on absurd.

In 1760 he set out to observe from the French possession of Pondicherry on the eastern shore of the Indian subcontinent. Reaching Ile-de-France (Mauritius) he found that further progress was made impossible by the ongoing naval war between France and Britain (in fairness, Mason and Dixon were fired upon numerous times by French ships too). He finally secured passage on a private merchant ship that had secured permission to travel to India by both navies. Unfortunately it went off course in a storm and floated aimlessly for five weeks, and when they finally reached Pondicherry they found that the French had lost it to Britain and Gentil was not allowed to disembark. The ship instead was forced to return to Mauritius, and on the appointed day, June 6, Gentil was unable to observe the transit from the deck of a ship pitching and rolling around in the Indian Ocean.

Surely that disappointed him, but he had another shot in the not too distant future. He remained in the Indian Ocean and took up projects like mapping the African coast, surveying Madagascar, and so on. He sent back word to France to let his family know that he would not be returning until after the second transit. After lengthy consideration he decided to observe the 1769 event from Manila. The Spanish colonial government, however, put him back on his ship when he arrived for some reason lost to history but probably having to do with the petty rivalries that defined the three great European powers in that era. Exasperated, he returned to Pondicherry (won back by France in a 1763 peace treaty) and set up his equipment to make his long-awaited observation. When it arrived – June 4, 1769 – Pondicherry, which had been chosen specifically for its unusually San Diego-like weather, was completely overcast. It was the first and only overcast day in more than six months Gentil spent at Pondicherry. He didn't see a thing.

Defeated, he returned to France on a ship on which dysentery broke out, killing many of the passengers and horribly sickening Gentil himself. When he finally arrived, haggard, half-dead, and spiritually deflated, he found that none of his letters to France had reached their destination. He had been removed from the Academy and declared legally dead; his wife re-married and avaricious relatives "enthusiastically plundered" his estate.

Only the direct intervention of Louis XVI, who found beyond pitiable the story of this man who had tried so hard to achieve something for the sake of the Academy and had been roundly kicked in the ass in return, restored him to something of a normal life. He was restored in his position at the Academy, remarried, and lived an additional two decades.

So if you had a bad week or you're having a bad day, it could be worse. You could be Guillaume de Gentil. Or on a ship when dysentery breaks out. Or both.

20 thoughts on “NPF: HUMAN ZIGGY”

  • Just wanted to note that the superb novel Mason & Dixon by Pynchon covers these events in some detail. Well worth reading.

  • How did Peter Sellers not make — and star in — a movie based on this guy's travels? This has Sellers written all over it.

  • what an uplifting story for a rainy Friday (at least in Chicago). If this guy isn't your patron saint, he's at least your Patronis or Spirit Guide

  • Mom Says I'm Handsome says:

    This reads like an episode of Connections with James Burke. I half-expected to discover that de Gentil and Halley shared a sleeper car while they were touring Europe with Up With People.

  • Fun fact, San Diego is completely overcast two to three months out of the year. Don't plan your vacation there for May or June (or even July, really) unless you enjoy cold, grey, overcast days.

  • @Turkle

    My mother actually bought that novel for my father the history buff, not realizing it was a work of fiction. My father ended up loving it and it was my gateway to Pynchon. Imho it's his magnum opus, better than Gravity's Rainbow.

  • Thanks for that. Been a crappy couple days, and some perspective helps. Bonus that a couple of disasters seem to be getting resolved and damned if the sun isn't shining after a few days of rain! God bless us everyone!

  • @Drew

    I think it's his best as well! The language is so over-the-top, I found myself laughing out loud in public about once per page just from the wordplay alone. Really masterfully done. Plus, pothead Ben Franklin.

  • Bill Bryson tells the same story in A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is where I first heard it. To be fair to his wife/relatives/the Academy, sea travel being what it was in those days, a man leaving on a voyage and not writing back for 10 years would have been perfectly good reason to suppose he was dead. My favorite part of the story is where he misses his assignment in India, and would rather work odd jobs for NINE YEARS than attempt to travel back unsuccessful.

  • Both Sides Do It says:

    Came for the Pynchon references, was not disappointed

    Everyone should read Mason & Dixon, it is sublime and makes constant Dick joakes

  • someone wrote a horrible book about the transit of venus…

    Mason & Dixon is a postmodernist novel by U.S. author Thomas Pynchon published in 1997. It concentrates on the collaboration of the historical Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in their astronomical and surveying exploits in Cape Colony, Saint Helena, Great Britain and along the Mason-Dixon line in British North America on the eve of the Revolutionary War in the United States.

    The novel is a frame narrative told from the focal point of one Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke – a clergyman of dubious orthodoxy – who attempts to entertain and divert his extended family on a cold December evening (partly for amusement, and partly to keep his coveted status as a guest in the house). Claiming to have accompanied Mason and Dixon throughout their journeys, Cherrycoke tells a tale intermingling Mason and Dixon's biographies with history, fantasy, legend, speculation, and outright fabrication.

  • Sorta like how I imagine 99% of talented, intelligent & ambitious women throughout the past centuries have felt:

    "Well, that worked. NOT."

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