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Mason and Dixon and the Race to Measure the Solar System

Edward Halley's dead hand has set in motion the greatest scientific project of two centuries. It is nothing less than the measurement of the solar system by timing Venus as it passes across the face of the Sun. They will have a chance this year and another in 8 years. After that, it will be more than 100 years before they can try again. In 1716 when Halley proposed this project, he knew these observations would be made by scientists who had not yet been born and that it would require multi-national cooperation to make the observations and then compare the data or it would all be for nothing. But he didn't count on the Seven Year's War. Mason and Dixon are British scientists who will one day mark the border line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, but right now they are ducking musket balls as they make their way to Sumatra to collect their data. French forces have attacked their ship, causing them to divert to the Cape of Good Hope. Is everyone insane? No. The scientists believe that their measurements will provide a method for determining longitude without a need for John Harrison's new-fangled marine watch and thus the SCIENTISTS will collect the prize money ahead of that knuckle-dragging philistine... uh... I mean... in the hope to further the interests of navigation, science and all of mankind. [1] [2] [3] [4]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
This project was spear-headed by the French, and carried out by scientists across the world. Obviously the French military didn't get the memo. I mentioned Mason and Dixon because they were British like Halley and most people have heard their names. The exact time that Venus starts and ends its transition varies depending on one's position on the Earth. Comparing the variations in time allowed scientists to triangulate the distance from the Earth to the Sun which is called an Astronomical Unit or AU. The relative distances from the Sun to the planets were already known, but there was no scale to the map. They didn't know if 1 AU equaled a million miles or a billion. (An AU is around 93 million miles.) Once they had an exact measurement to the Sun, all the other measurements fell into place. They also noticed that Venus has an atmosphere. I recommend Andrea Wulf's book "Chasing Venus" for a detailed account of the effort. It is a fascinating story. One astronomer was almost killed by natives. They thought he was a magician. [5] [6]

The Search for Pi and Pluto

The Swiss scientist and mathematician, John Heinrich Lambert, has shown that the exact value of pi is an irrational number... That means an exact decimal value can never be calculated. To demonstrate his conclusion, he changes the way that the number is represented, turning the formula into a series of stacked calculations of division called a "continued fraction". (I can't describe it better than that, but it becomes obvious after a few iterations. That is, it becomes obvious to Lambert. I still haven't had my coffee.) Lambert also publishes a work on photometrics this year. That is the measurement of light. In particular he will introduce the word "albedo" (al-BEE-doe) which is the measurement of the "whiteness" of an object or its general reflective quality. [7] [8]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
This idea of the "whiteness" of an object has fascinated scientists observing Pluto because however "white" a planet may be, it probably should not change too much over time unless lava is flowing or something is growing over the surface. Neither of those seemed reasonable for Pluto. Pluto was getting "whiter" as it moved further from the Sun! Scientists finally realized that Pluto has an atmosphere and that it "snows" methane as it gets colder. Methane "snow" is what makes the surface whiter at times. As its orbit brings Pluto closer to the Sun, the "snow" melts and we see the darker surface of the planet once again. It is a cycle that renews the reflective quality of Pluto. [9] [10] [11]

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Spangled Banner!

The lyrics are not written yet, but the music for this tune is published this year. It won't jump to the top of the music charts until Mozart uses it in one of his compositions 20 years from now. The same tune will be used for the Alphabet Song and Baa, Baa Black Sheep. [12] [13]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
This idea of putting new lyrics to old songs has a long tradition. In particular, the Star Spangled Banner comes with original lyrics but uses a song from a British gentleman's club. Actually, the men singing this song were considered gentlemen, but the song itself was a drinking song, meant to promote the love of music, women and good wine. [14] [15]

This Year in Wikipedia

Year 1761, Wikipedia.

See Also


  1. Charles Mason - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “In 1761, Mason was assigned to travel to the island of Sumatra to observe the transit of Venus as part of an international effort to record data that would enable scientists to determine the distance from the earth to the sun. Mason was joined by Jeremiah Dixon, a surveyor and amateur astronomer from Cockfield in the County of Durham. Owing to an attack by a French man-of-war, they did not reach their destination in time for the transit and were forced to record their observations from the Cape of Good Hope. On the way back from the Cape they visited St. Helena where they made a series of observations with the astronomer Nevil Maskelyne.”
  2. Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, Knopf. 
  3. Jeremiah Dixon - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “Jeremiah Dixon served as assistant to Charles Mason in 1761 when the Royal Society selected Mason to observe the transit of Venus from Sumatra. However, their passage to Sumatra was delayed, and they landed instead at the Cape of Good Hope where the transit was observed on June 6, 1761. Dixon returned to the Cape once again with Nevil Maskelyne's clock to work on experiments with gravity.”
  4. Teets, Donald A. (December 2003). "Transits of Venus and the Astronomical Unit". Mathematics Magazine (Mathematical Association of America) 76 (5): 335-348. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3654879. Retrieved 7 April 2016. 
  5. Astronomical unit - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “Originally conceived as the average of Earth's aphelion and perihelion, it is now defined as exactly 149597870700 metres (about 150 million kilometres, or 93 million miles).”
  6. Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. Simon and Schuster, 352-353. 
  7. Proof that π is irrational - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “In the 18th century, Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that the number (pi) is irrational. That is, it cannot be expressed as a fraction a/b, where a is an integer and b is a non-zero integer.”
  8. Albedo - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “Albedo (/ælˈbiːdoʊ/) or reflection coefficient, derived from Latin albedo 'whiteness' (or reflected sunlight) in turn from albus 'white', is the diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface.”
  9. Photometria - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “Assuming that the planets had diffusely reflective surfaces, Lambert attempted to determine the amount of their reflectance, given their relative brightness and known distance from the sun. A century later, Zöllner studied Photometria and picked up where Lambert left off, and initiated the field of astrophysics.”
  10. Methane Snow on Pluto’s Peaks. NASA (March 3, 2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “Scientists think this bright material could be predominantly methane that has condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto's atmosphere. 'That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth's atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,' said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member from Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland.”
  11. Alex Shrugged notes: My remarks are based on my reading of the project to send a probe to Pluto and why. Admittedly this is from memory. Any errors are my own... obviously.
  12. Ah! vous dirai-je, maman - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “'Ah! vous dirai-je, maman' is a popular children's song in France, which has had numerous lyrics on different themes since its composition in the 18th century. This song was popularized in Twelve Variations on 'Ah vous dirai-je, Maman' by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
  13. Twelve Variations on 'Ah vous dirai-je, Maman' - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “Twelve Variations on 'Ah vous dirai-je, Maman', K. 265/300e, is a piano composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composed when he was around 25 years old (1781 or 1782). This piece consists of twelve variations on the French folk song 'Ah! vous dirai-je, maman'. The French melody first appeared in 1761, and has been used for many children's songs, such as 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep' and the 'Alphabet Song'.”
  14. The Star-Spangled Banner - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “The poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men's social club in London. 'To Anacreon in Heaven' (or 'The Anacreontic Song'), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States.”
  15. Anacreontic Society - Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved on 7 April 2016. “While the society's membership, one observer noted, was dedicated to 'wit, harmony, and the god of wine,' their primary goal (beyond companionship and talk) was to promote an interest in music.”

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