November/December 2006 Table of Contents
line of Mason and Dixon.
Illustration by T. Ford.
1543, Copernicus published his Sun-centered model of the Solar System.
Using the observations of the planets that had been made over many
centuries, he was able to calculate the time it took for each of
the five known planets to circle the Sun. He was also able to calculate
the relative distances of the planets from the Sun. Kepler would
later slightly improve these numbers by putting the planets in elliptical
orbits. However, neither Copernicus nor Kepler could determine the
absolute size of the planetary radii.
the next 150 years, many values were published by various authors,
but these values differed widely and no consensus could be reached.
Then, in 1691 and 1716, Edmund Halley published two papers showing
how a transit of Venus could be used to find the planetary radii.
This method required observations of the transit from at least two
widely separated locations on Earth.
1761 approached, both France and England prepared to send several
teams to northern and southern locations to observe the Venus transit
in June of that year. One of the English teams was to be headed
by Charles Mason and assisted by Jeremiah Dixon. Mason, a talented
mathematician and astronomer, had been an assistant to the Astronomer
Royal, James Bradley, for four years. It is believed that Dixon,
a surveyor and keen astronomer, had been recommended by the great
instrument maker, John Bird.
December of 1760, Mason and Dixon left on a Royal Navy warship for
Sumatra in the south Pacific. However, due to delays caused by the
ongoing Seven Years War, they only reached the Cape of Good Hope
by April. They decided to observe from Capetown and not risk running
out of time. They carefully measured the latitude and longitude
of the Cape, as these values were essential for the transit calculations.
Luckily, the sixth of June was a sunny day, and the team was able
to observe the transit.
returned to England in 1762, little suspecting that within a year
they would begin another equally exciting adventure.
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