William Wales and the 1769 transit of Venus: puzzle solving and the determination of the astronomical unit
According to Thomas Kuhn, a significant part of “normal science” is the fact gathering, empirical work which is intended to illustrate an existing paradigm. Some of this effort focuses on the determination of physical constants such as the astronomical unit (AU). For Kuhn, normal science is also what prepares students for membership in a particular scientific community and is embodied in some form in our science textbooks. However, neither Kuhn nor the textbook says much about the individuals who practice normal science, especially those who had been relegated to the “hack” duties of long and arduous measurement and calculation. In this paper, to provide a context for students of astronomy, I will outline the story of the determination of the AU and in particular the contribution of William Wales, an obscure British astronomer. Wales, toiling in the shadow of Halley (of Halley’s comet fame), Mason and Dixon (of Mason and Dixon line fame) and the infamous Captain Cook endured a brutal winter in northern Canada for a brief glimpse of the 1769 transit of Venus. In the end, Wales supplied one small piece of the puzzle in the determination of the AU and he exemplified the human spirit and persistence of a Kuhnian “puzzle solver”.