The Astronomer That Just Could Never See The Transit Of Venus

Jeff Glennon - July 1st, 2019

Guillaume Le Gentil was a well-respected astronomer from France that discovered several nebulae and was even a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. And though he made some amazing scientific discoveries he is more remembered for his turmoil of two unsuccessful attempts of observing the transit of Venus from India in 1761 and 1769.

He was part of an international project that was trying to measure the distance to the Sun by observing the transit of Venus at different points to the Earth. Hundreds of observers were dispatched to different parts of the globe in 1761, but the French expedition that was sent to Pondicherry in India proved to be extremely unlucky – especially Guillaume Le Gentil.

He left France in 1760 but took nearly a year to make it to India due to wars between France and Britain causing travel problems. And unfortunately, even though he was on route to make it in time to make the observation, his boat was blown off course. Along with unfavorable winds they were stuck out at sea for five weeks, and then when they were finally going to make it to Pondicherry, the British had occupied the port which forced the French ship to turn around. This meant that Le Gentil to missed the chance to observe the transit of Venus. Due to it taking so long to get to India, Le Gentil decided he may as well wait the 8 years and observe the next transit of Venus.

After spending some time in Madagascar mapping the Eastern coast, he traveled to Manila to prepare to observe the next transit but encountered hostility from Spanish authorities. However, as France and Britain had signed a peace treaty in 1763, he decided to make his way back to Pondicherry and arrived in March 1768. He built up a small observatory and waited patiently for the observation date.

Yet the sky became completely overcast and Le Gentil saw nothing. This misfortune nearly drove him completely mad, but he was able to discover enough courage to travel back to France. His return trip was not great either, but he finally made it home in 1771 after being away for 11 years – only to find he had been declared legally dead! The Academy had replaced him, his wife had remarried and all his relatives had plundered his estate. Due to shipwrecks and wartime attacks, none of his letters had arrived to the Academy. It took an intervention from the King himself to restore his titles.

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