ScienceWise - Winter 2012

Clouded Out

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The story of Guillaume Le Gentil (You can also download this as a print quality pdf at the foot of this article)

The unluckiest man in science and the transit of 1761

Were you clouded out for the transit of Venus? Many people were so we thought we’d share with you the story of Guillaume Le Gentil who’s experiences may make you feel a little less mistreated by the universe.

Guillaume was an eighteenth century French astronomer who wanted to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun by observing the transit of Venus. The observations had to be made simultaneously from at least two widely spaced locations on the Earth.

In 1760 Guillaume allocated himself an observing position in the French Colony of Pondicherry, India and set out full of enthusiasm to observe the transit that was predicted for the following year. If you think international travel is a hassle now, imagine what it was like back then!

After several months eating maggot infested biscuits in a creaky, crowded and smelly wooden ship he finally arrived off the Indian coast.  However whilst he was at sea, yet another war had broken out between the French and the English and he discovered that English forces occupied his port of destination. 

An agonising farce ensued during which he sought another destination but the confusion of war and difficulties with the ship meant that when the day of the transit came, poor old Guillaume found himself at sea on a beautiful clear day but was unable to make any meaningful observations due to the rolling deck.

However, our hero was not a man of feint heart. He decided that since this was only the first transit of the pair he’d wait around for the second, which was after all only eight years away. No point going home, by the time he got there it would be almost time to return.

Eight years later as the time of the second transit drew near, Guillaume decided that he’d head for Manilla in the Philippines as that would be an excellent vantage point and should offer a safe landing. Unfortunately when he arrived the Spanish authorities were anything but helpful so he was forced to head back to India in great haste.

When he arrived back in India, it seemed like his luck had changed. The French had ousted the English from Pondicherry and he was there in plenty of time to set up an observatory. And that’s exactly what he did.

For a month before the transit the sun rose every morning into a beautiful clear blue Indian sky. Then as he sat with his telescope on the morning of the transit the clouds rolled in and he saw absolutely nothing. The moment the transit was over, the skies cleared and the sun shone through. No doubt Monsieur Le Gentil made colourful use of the French language that day!

As the next transit would be over a century later there was nothing for the poor man to do but throw his hands up in disgust and head for home. But his troubles were far from over. His journey was delayed by a terrible bout of dysentery and when he finally boarded ship, it was damaged in a storm and forced to land at a small island off the Indian coast. Still suffering from dysentery, Guillaume was too sick to re-board so had to wait for the next ship to call there – and the service was anything but regular.

It took him 11 torturous years to get back to his native France. Imagine his surprise when he finally got home and discovered that in his absence he’d been declared legally dead. His house and possessions had been taken by relatives, his wife had remarried and in his seat at the academy had been given to someone else.

However, it’s said that persistence does eventually pay off and if there was ever a man of persistence that was Guillaume. With the help of the King Louis XVI, he regained his job and some of his possessions. He also fell in love and remarried and for the remaining 21 years of his life he and his new wife lived very happily together in France.

There’s irony here too. At least part of Guillaume’s motivation for observing the transit was to make a name for himself. And two and a half centuries later here you are reading his story and I bet you can’t name any of the other successful observers. So in a way, Guillaume had the last laugh.


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