Groggy and excited to dig into the last little bit of research I need for my new novel, I stumbled off the plane at Charles de Gaulle and made my way to the Marais, a part of the city I don’t know well. The reason for picking the Marais is that it’s close to the Archives nationales where I hope to find information about an obscure French artist, Alexandre-Jean Noël. Noël is one of those footnotes in history, a witness to an event that shocked the scientific world–the untimely death of the abbé Chappe d’Auteroche.
Chappe was the Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking of his day. He knew Benjamin Franklin and repeated Franklin’s lightning experiments in Siberia. Chappe had gone to Siberia in 1761 to make observations on the Transit of Venus, a celestial event Halley had predicted. Chappe had translated Halley’s tables into French, so he well knew how important it was to seize the opportunity the Transit of Venus offered. The Transit only occurred roughly every hundred years, and then again after a seven or eight year interval. If the astronomers missed collecting their data, another century would roll by before they could try again.
Everyone in the scientific circles of the Enlightenment, including all the Academies of Science and the monarchs of all the major powers, anticipated that this Transit event would give them a chance to answer a question that had long plagued astronomers as well as sea captains trying to circumnavigate the globe. What is the earth’s distance from the sun? And, by triangulation, what does that make the earth’s circumference? At that time, no one knew the earth’s diameter. Terra incognita appeared on maps of the Pacific Ocean. Mariners had a tough time if they sailed around the tip of South America…which, of course, they rarely did because Spain claimed the waters between Mexico and Manila as the “Spanish Ocean.” No one but Spaniards, the Portuguese, and the privateers that preyed upon the Spanish galleons dared enter the Pacific, but everyone, especially the British, wanted to know what lay beyond the North American continent. Britain’s Colonists, the pushy Americans, had already started to crowd the Spanish out of South Carolina and Georgia, and the Spanish Crown, on the head of Carlos III, suspected anyone from another nation–especially the British–of ulterior motives.
In 1761, Europe’s scientific Academies had sent their learned men to many points around the globe, mostly the northern hemisphere. Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason–of the Mason-Dixon Line–measured the Transit at the Cape of Good Hope. The French Observatory, coordinating the expeditions along with England’s Royal Academy, wound up sending abbé Chappe d’Auteroche to Tobolsk. Avid in the service of science, Chappe nearly got himself lynched by a mob convinced his heavenly observations had unleashed torrential floods. Russia, unknown at the time even by its monarch, Catherine the Great, had never been exposed to outside scrutiny, but Chappe’s memoir of the the trip, VOYAGE TO SIBERIA had just been published in France and quickly translated to English. Because its illustrations allowed readers to visualize the strange people Chappe wrote about, the book became an instant best seller and invited a rejoinder from the insulted monarch.
Unfortunately, the 1761 Transit measurements didn’t give astronomers a definitive answer to their questions about the earth’s diameter and distance from the sun. But in 1769, the Transit event would happen again–Venus making an arc across the sun’s disk. Imagine a bite out of a cookie outlined by a tiny black, moving droplet. Astronomers planned to measure the time between the first encroachment of the planet–the black dot of Venus moving into the white-hot image of the sun–and the moment the planet exited, but it was tough to tell when the black drop crossed the sun’s perimeter. Obviously, they couldn’t do the measurements by staring at the sun. Instead, they had to set up a telescope that would be aimed at the sun, but that would project the Transit of Venus through its eyepiece. The sun’s silhouette would appear on a piece of paper that they could then mark as the droplet moved.
The Academies had time to plan for the 1769 Transit. Coordinated by the British and French Royal Academies, eighteen expeditions scattered to far-flung parts of the globe. Reluctantly and warned by his friends about the dangers of such a trip, Chappe headed out a second time. His only requirement was that he not be sent anyplace cold. Baja California–today’s San José del Cabo–fit the bill.
Chappe originally intended for this second trip to yield a second bestseller. He wanted to return to France via the Philippines, and, thence, through the Spice Islands, and around Africa. For that long a journey and to fulfill his idea of an illustrated volume, he needed an artist, someone willing to travel with him on such a journey on an extended journey. Who would dare go all that way? And why?
In the handwritten diary that filled five leather volumes, Chappe referred to his artist as “le petit Noël”–the little Noël. Fifteen at the time and sixteen by the time they reached Baja, Noël had just begun his studies at the Royal Academy of Painting and Scupture, but off he went on an adventure that changed his life.