Art in Paradise: Staring at the Sun
If you’ve been in the Valley a while, you may well recognize Mark Anderson as a former Valley Advocate writer (he wrote for the paper in the ’90s). You might also recognize him from his 2005 book Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare.
With that volume, Anderson placed himself in the middle of the tempest surrounding the authorship of the William Shakespeare canon, a storm that provokes impassioned opinions among the “Oxfordian” (Edward de Vere wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare) set, and irritation among the traditionalists who maintain that the man named William Shakespeare really penned those works. The cases for and against are, these centuries later, circumstantial, and thus subject to expansive debate.
Though Anderson clearly continues to carry the banner for the Oxfordian camp, he’s since moved on to other subjects in his writing. In addition to his arts-related chops, Anderson holds a B.A. in physics and an M.S. in astrophysics. In his new book The Day the World Discovered the Sun, due out this June, he examines a once- or twice-per-century phenomenon that’s about to come around again, also in June: the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. That may sound dull, but not when you learn the extent of the global effort to document the Venusian transit of 1769, not to mention the dramatic voyages undertaken to document it. For astronomers, the transit was a vital chance to bring a new precision to observations, combining data from all over the world to reveal the true dimensions of the solar system and improve the all-important measurement of longitude at sea, which had only recently become possible.
It can be tough to make the world of centuries ago feel alive, but Anderson does an excellent job of it, writing with a feel for just-right detail to evoke the drama of the 1769 expeditions to view the transit. He focuses on three: the voyage of French astonomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe c’Auteroche to South America; English Captain James Cook’s to the Pacific; and Hungarian priest Maximilian Hell’s to the Arctic. The last is of particular interest as the first English-language recounting of the trip, based on expedition journals (Anderson had them translated for the book).
In each case, Anderson employs the tools of a novelist, dramatizing the adventurer’s tales in grand style. Such stuff seems to always require a certain suspension of disbelief—a good guess is, of course, all anyone has when it comes to a real person’s thoughts. Go with it, and you’ll find Anderson’s prose gleaming with a stout and convincing imagining of the past.
He came across the idea while researching another story for Wired. “I discovered some really interesting characters,” Anderson says. Though the drier, scientific story had been told, “No one had approached it as ‘here are some amazing adventures.'”
That is, in short, what the book is: an adventure tale that brings to life knowledge that is a touch esoteric, yet was at the center of vital, practical pursuits of the 18th century. “It’s in a way like the Apollo space program and the computer industry,” says Anderson. “The space program gave the computer industry a major shot in the arm. The main players in solving this major scientific problem were also the players in this down-to-earth issue.”