October 16, 2013
Join Andrea Wulf in “Chasing Venus” Thursday in Colonial Williamsburg
Today, author and historian Andrea Wulf is in Ohio, discussing how early gardeners shaped the creation of America.
On Thursday, as part of the Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series, she visits Colonial Williamsburg to speak about an astronomical event that won’t happen again for another 100 years.
The topics are not as disparate as they may seem.
“Quite simply, I am interested in the relationship between man and nature,” Wulf said in a phone interview earlier this week.
Wulf, who was born in India and moved to Germany as a child, lives in Britain and trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art. There, she studied the history of man-made items — everything from furniture to factories. “You tease out stories from objects,” Wulf said.
But, she said, she always wanted to be a full-time writer. Her first book, “This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History,” was published with co-author Emma Gieben-Gamal in 2005. “And since then, I’ve been a very lucky woman,” she said.
Then came the “The Brother Gardeners” in 2009; “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation,” was published in 2011.
A departure from the subject of gardens and gardeners, “Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens” was published in 2012. She will speak about her book from from 5:30-6:30 Thursday, Oct. 17, at Hennage Auditorium at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
It tells the story of the transit of Venus in the 1760s, in which the planet Venus passes through the Earth and the Sun. The rare celestial event occurred in June 2012 and will happen again in December 2117.
But the transit of Venus in 1761 had particular significance. It marked the first time that scientists around the world set aside political and ideological differences to collectively record observations of the event from points around the globe.
In modern history, Wulf said, the Higgs boson particle discovery and the Large Hardron Collider work in Geneva are examples of modern global scientific cooperation. But the Venus transit “was the first time there was truly an international scientific collaboration,” said Wulf.
“Chasing Venus” outlines the serious barriers faced by those early researchers — traveling through war zones, icy terrain, unfriendly borders. Even the lack of globally-standardized measurements posed a significant obstacle.
But by the time the transit of Venus occurred again in 1769, the science community had learned valuable lessons, Wulf said. Improved instrumentation and more knowledge about viewing points helped — as did good weather and the end of the Seven Years’ War.
Five weeks after the publication of “Chasing Venus,” Wolf herself was viewing the 2012 transit — from Arizona where “there was the greatest sunshine possibility.”