Monday, June 23, 2008


Copy of Cartoon by Alden Smith

Life is not just like a straight graph line you know. Ask any rabbit in a red raincoat if life is a flat lining graph and he or she will answer, "life is very spiky and I have the ripped raincoat and wet bruised feet to proof it". I know this for a fact for some of my best friends are rabbits and they have told me as much.

I have found life to be generally spiky a lot of the time. Sometimes you just have to put on your red raincoat and repeat the words, "life is just one spiky thing after another" and get on with it. But today I have some important news. Here is a story to console yourself with when the smooth granite paving stones beneath your feet feel like layers of schist and you say to yourself, " I think I'm having a bit of a schist day today."

In the early days of science Edmond Halley suggested that if you measured the transit of Venus over the face of the sun from different parts of the world you could use the mathematical principles of triangulation to work out the distance of the earth from the sun. Transits of Venus over the sun come in pairs 8 years apart and then there is a gap of a century or more.

In 1761 scientists set off to more than 100 sites all over the globe to observe the transit of Venus. A Frenchman Guillaume le Gentil set off for India but his ship was late and he missed the transit. Undeterred he carried on to India and waited 8 years for the next transit. He build a wonderful viewing tower, he tested and tested and tested his instruments and made sure that everything was perfect for the great day of the transit. He was ready. On the morning of June 4th 1769 he awoke to a fine bright day. But as Venus began its transit of the sun a large cloud blanketed the sun for the duration of the transit which was about 3 hours, 14 minutes and 7 seconds.

So Guillaume le Gentil packed up and went back to France. When he arrived back after suffering sickness on the voyage and near shipwreck he was met with more bad news. In his absence his relatives had had him declared dead, sold his estate and divided the spoils.

So when things get spiky and you feel a bout of red raincoat weather in the offing, take heart and think of poor old le Gentil. Stand tall on your raft in the rain with your wet feet. Remember dry land is a lot less than 8 years away and no one will have nicked your burrow when you get there.

Guillaume le Gentil's story and very many more are in Bill Bryson's wonderful and popular book 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. A very enjoyable and accessible way of enjoying science. Its written in the vernacular for ordinary rabbits like me.


Katherine said...

A coincidence Auden. My daughter went to bed tonight with a dry cough and 'A Short History...' and I've just (3 am) given her another two panadol. Her temp is up to over 102...
So, having a very spiky, schisty night here! Thanks for your words of comfort.
As your own daughter says, you are an amazing person.

Alden Smith said...

I do hope your daughter is now well. There does seem to be a lot of winter chills and ills going around.
Thankyou for calling me amazing, I'm not of course, just very ordinary, but it worked its magic and all day I felt how one of those old pot plant must feel when someone gives it a good drink of water.

Schist happens as they say, it also helps us grow sometimes, but please lord, in small doses with long spinnaker runs in between.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

I read this book, too, a few years ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing this story about Gentil. It's a good reminder.