The Unluckiest Astronomer – a tale for the modern scientist

By May 18, 2014Science heroes

This story is by Dr Alan Duffy. You can hear him tell the story here.

The subject of this talk is a legendary figure in astronomy, a man with such dedication and diligence in the noble art of 18th century star gazing that he was brought to the edge of sanity, financial ruin and indeed ultimately, over the edge into death. This is a story of Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste le Gentil de la Galaisière or Le Gentil for short. Born 1725 and died 1792. A scientist of breathtaking tenacity and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Our tale begins in 1760 with the first ever, global scientific endeavour about to get underway. 120 separate teams of astronomers were planning travel to all corners of the Earth to observe the passage of the planet Venus in front of the Sun, an event we call a transit.

What of Le Gentil? He’d gotten over an early passing interest in taking holy orders and becoming a priest and instead had enrolled in France’s Royal Academy of Science. To his surprise he was selected to undertake an expedition to observe the transit from Pondicherry in India.

He boarded a boat from Brest in France to the French colony of Pondicherry in India on the 16th March 1760 to observe the predicted 1761 transit. Initially things went well, the boat made good time and arrived in Mauritius four months later. However, in a sign of things to come for poor Le Gentil, his plans were thrown into chaos as war between England and France erupted. His vessel could go no further East and precious time ticked away until the global scientific event of the century.

He was finally able to gain passage on a frigate that was travelling to India’s Coromandel Coast. It was now fully a year since he left France, but the tenacious Le Gentil was off again!

He only had a few months remaining before the transit in June so it was with some trepidation that he asked the captain whether they would make it in time.

Bearing in mind that this was the monsoon season, so the captain was slightly optimistic when assuring him that it would be fine. Predictably, for the next five weeks the ship was hammered by unfavourable winds, wandering around the Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas.

As they were finally closing in on the West Coast of India the captain of the frigate learnt that their destination, Pondicherry, had been captured by the dastardly English! There was nothing else the Captain could do but turn his frigate back to Mauritius.

With our astronomer still on board.

On the day of the transit, our unfortunate Jonah was on a rolling ship, unable to make the observations through his instruments.

At this point, after 18 months of harrowing delays, Le Gentil was back in Mauritius having missed the transit. Now, it just so happens that although transits of Venus are rare, typically only every century or so, they occur in pairs just eight  years apart. After the horrors of his trip it was perhaps understandable that Le Gentil wasn’t too keen on doing it again so decided to stay and wait for the next transit.

After a few years, England and France made peace and the original location of Pondicherry was returned in the treaty to France, so the French government suggested he return to observe the transit from there. And so it was that he finally arrived, a mere eight years since he first left France.

He was warmly welcomed by the governor, and a feast was thrown in his honour. Things were finally looking up for Le Gentil! In Pondicherry he constructed an observatory and patiently awaited the July eclipse the following year. He was in good spirits in the month leading up to the transit even going so far as to entertain the local governor with views of Jupiter and its moons the evening before the transit.

So it was with dismay, but to nobody’s surprise here that he awoke on the morning of the transit to a sky blanketed with clouds… In his own words “I felt doomed, I threw myself on the bed”. To his mounting horror the clouds continued to thicken and obscure the entire transit! Just for a laugh the clouds apparently cleared almost immediately after the transit.

By all account this setback quite unhinged the young astronomer, and his return to France was delayed for several weeks until he recovered. At which point he contracted dysentery. Which just seemed an entirely unnecessary final ignominy for the poor scientist before leaving the Indian Ocean.

Finally on French soil after 11 years, six months and 13 days our hero Le Gentil was back, having managed to miss the only two transits of Venus in his lifetime.

One may imagine if not a warm welcome, at least some commiserations awaited him on his return.

Sadly he came back, broken in health and spirit, to discover his employers at the Royal Academy of Science had legally declared him dead, albeit with a nice epitaph declaring that he had acted to “encourage and protect the spirit of the French scientific research”.

It then gets worse, as his wife had by now remarried, and his relatives had helped themselves to his assets now that he was officially deceased. Incredibly everyone appeared to find his return quite disappointing and he was embroiled in a series of lawsuits until the King of France himself had to intervene to rectify the situation …

And what moral tales are there for us here tonight? Well the number rule would be publish or perish.

Or at the very least keep your supervisor updated with your progress or risk being declared legally dead.

Don’t neglect your private life in the pursuit of science, as your partner may not be too happy with being abandoned for a decade while you investigate nature.

Finally, next time you complain about some onerous task a boss or supervisor has given you, keep the sacrifices that Le Gentil made for science in mind. Just don’t perhaps go to the same extremes.

However, this isn’t quite the end of the story as ultimately Le Gentil would remarry, fathering a daughter and by all accounts his new family was able to help him overcome the nightmarish trip.

So you could say that he lived happily ever after …