Book review: Venus Seen on the Sun

This review was first published in the British Journal for the History of Science 46 (March 2013)

Jeremiah Horrocks and Wilbur Applebaum (trans.), Venus Seen on the Sun: The First Observation of a Transit of Venus by Jeremiah Horrocks. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. xxiv +82. ISBN 978­90­04­22193­2. €99.00 (hardback). 

Jeremiah Horrocks' observation of the 1639 transit of Venus, as published by Johannes Hevelius with Horrocks' Venus in sole visa in 1662.
Jeremiah Horrocks’ observation of the 1639 transit of Venus, from Johannes Hevelius’ version of Venus in sole visa (1662).

The June 2012 transit of Venus was the occasion to turn our attention once again to the observers of the previous transits, in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882. Thus it is that we have the first English translation since the nineteenth century of Jeremiah Horrocks’s account of his 1639 observation. This seems long overdue, especially given the fact that the only other available translation, which is ‘more free in style than necessary’ (p. xxii), was produced by someone who lacked familiarity with the history of astronomy and introduced a number of errors.

The text of Venus in Sole visa, first published by Johannes Hevelius in 1662, is not only an account of the first observation of this rare event but also a fascinating commentary on astronomy at a period of significant change. The transit gave Horrocks the opportunity to judge and correct the work of Copernicus, Lansberge, Longomontanus and Kepler, with the Rudolphine Tables of the last being proved much the superior. It was this, rather than the observation itself, or even its indication of the planets’ great distance and lack of luminosity, that marked the significance of the work. In addition, the text is remarkably readable: as Applebaum writes in the brief introduction, ‘It is filled with an unrestrained enthusiasm and intensity of commitment from which a youthful and refreshing naiveté is never wholly lacking’ (p. xxiii).

Short though the introduction is, it helpfully outlines Horrocks’s life, the history of the four draft manuscripts of the treatise, and the astronomical context in which it was produced and read. Applebaum’s notes in the main text are full and extremely helpful, in technical matters and in relation to the books and manuscripts that Horrocks was referring to, both scientific and literary. I cannot comment on the faithfulness of the translation but it reads well, with the exception, perhaps, of Horrocks’s poetry, which has been translated for meaning rather than scansion.

A sense of Horrocks’s personality arises from the text, in part due to his adhering to ‘a style now completely gone from scientific literature’ (p. xxiv). There is infectious zeal, leading to amusingly damning judgements, as well as the poetry, digressions and classical allusions. (The transit of Venus is a subject for which coy personifications and metaphors of seduction seem not yet to have gone out of style.) It is not hard to see why successive readers of Horrocks have taken him to their hearts. The Victorians, with Arundell B. Whatton’s 1859 Memoir and a series of essentially fictional memorials and portraits, naturally led the way, bequeathing their vision of a pious and persevering young cleric, fighting ill health to perform first his Christian and then his scientific duty.

Jeremiah Horrocks' observation of the transit of Venus, as imagined in 1891 by Eyre Crowe
Jeremiah Horrocks’ observation of the transit of Venus, as imagined in 1891 by Eyre Crowe

We, no less enthused by a local hero with his finger on the pulse of Continental astronomy, will still rejoice in the account of a young astronomer’s greatest moment. Although touched by the thought of his work being cut short by tragically early death, Horrocks nevertheless comes across as wonderfully vital. The modern, positively reclaimed term ‘geek’ comes to mind in reading Horrocks’s description of astronomers who ‘immoderately delight in trifling things, which do not move others in the least’ (p. 16). Something similar arises from his lauding of Kepler, ‘the unparalleled prince of true astronomy’ (p. 51), and his dismissal of the ‘boasts’ and ‘impotent clamour’ (p. 72) of Philippe van Lansberge and those who relied on his tables.

Apart from Kepler, Horrocks’s greatest praise is for ‘the recent and wonderful invention of the telescope’ (p. 8). Despite writing three decades after the instrument was patented, Horrocks clearly felt that ‘the Belgian telescope’ still required a better reputation, and thus he affirmed the increased accuracy it allowed and defended it against those who suggested it could create illusions. It is eulogized in verse, as readers are urged to ‘learn the wonders of such a great tube’ (p. 11) and join him, lying in wait to spy Venus.

Being a review of a book published by Brill, this must end with the inevitable comment about cost. Ninety-nine euros for just over a hundred pages is steep by any measure. Given the accessible style of Horrocks’s writing and Applebaum’s translation, it is a shame that this should simply be a library-based reference work. The author’s preface promises a full-length biography of Horrocks in the near future. It is much to be hoped that this does indeed appear, and that it is available at a price that places it within reach of significantly more pockets.