Friday, July 2, 2010

Venus, a "Pulquería", and an Observatory

People strolling around downtown Mexico City in 1875 might have come across countless “pulquerías” with odd names (pulque is a beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, Wikipedia dixit). But for weirdness of denomination none beat the latest addition to the long list of hangouts for the brothers in pulque: ”El tránsito de Venus.” The name was no allusion to Roman mythology, but the pulque fraternity´s way of celebrating a major scientific event that took place in 1874.

That was the year a Mexican expedition traveled to Japan to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun´s disk. Venus transits occur in pairs, the second transit in a pair coming eight years after the first. Consecutive pairs of transits happen at intervals of more than one hundred years. The transit of 1874 was the first in a pair, the previous one having taken place on June 3, 1769.

Venus transits are interesting because they allow scientists to measure “solar parallax” --a quantity from which the earth-sun distance can be accurately computed. The Mexican team was part of an international effort to determine solar parallax. Enthusiastic about the project, President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada chose Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, a geographer from the Colegio de Minería, as head of the expedition. There were, at the time, no secure roads between Mexico City and the Pacific, so Díaz Covarrubias and his team took a train to Veracruz, stopping in Orizaba for several days after learning that an epidemic of black vomit was ravaging the port. From Veracruz they traveled to Havana and Philadelphia, then on to New York, where they inquired about ships leaving San Francisco for Japan. (No, I don´t know why they took such a roundabout route.) They then crossed the United States, arrived in San Francisco, and on October 19, sailed aboard the steamer Vasco de Gama. The Mexican expedition made landfall in Yokohama on November 9, 1874, precisely one month before the transit.

Díaz Covarrubias intended to build two observation stations on Japanese soil, but he needed permits. Unfortunately, they had reached Japan at the time of a national holiday, and Díaz Covarrubias had to wait for several days before he got an answer from the Japanese government. During this time he hired a Chinese carpenter who understood some English to assemble the stations. When the government finally responded, it did so handsomely. They even provided a special telegraph line for the Mexicans to communicate with their American and French counterparts, in Kobe and Nagasaki. The transit was duly observed on December 8-9, 1874.

Díaz Covarrubias and his men sailed home via the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez canal, the Mediterranean, and Paris, where they published their results. They then crossed the Atlantic to Veracruz. On November 19, 1875, the train carrying the Mexican expedition rolled into the Buenavista station. The men were given a hero’s welcome, recounted the following day in the daily El siglo diecinueve .

I wonder if the event stirred the patrons of “El tránsito de Venus.” Did they discuss it? Did the pulquería take pride in making the news that day? Did a chorus of pulque-besotted voices toast the men who had sailed around the world to witness the event celebrated in their saloon´s strange name?

Whatever the reaction of the pulquería´s clients, the following year Porfirio Díaz, the new president (and future dictator), signed a decree whereby Mexico was officially given a National Observatory.

12 comments:

Matalote said...

Existen distintos relatos sobre las expediciones que varios países hicieron para observar los "tránsitos de Venus". La experiencia de la expedición mexicana no la conocía y me parece muy interesante. Claro, primero me sorprende la ruta tan curiosa de ida y bueno, ya estando del otro lado del mundo, ?porqué no hacer el viaje de regreso por la ruta clásica? Con los recursos técnicos de esa época, el trabajo de los científicos-exploradores: observaciones y resultados, resulta aún más meritorio. Yo ya tuve la oportunidad de ver un tránsito de Venus y me emocionó mucho, el punto negro pequenito pasando frente al sol enorme. Yo sólo tuve que salir de casa y ponerme los lentes con filtro. Si hubiera tenido que hacer un viaje trasatlántico para ello, mi satisfacción hubiera sido aún mayor.

Sergio de Régules said...

Pues yo tampoco entiendo por qué tuvieron que cruzar Estados Unidos. ¿No había barcos de Acapulco a San Francisco? Creo que el problema era llegar de la Ciudad de México a Acapulco...

Sería padre ir a Japón con ese pretexto, ¡y pagado por el gobierno!

Anonymous said...

Genial dispatch and this post helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you as your information.

sunnylove said...

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I've truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. Thanks for sharing excellent informations. patek philippe perpetual calendar chronograph

Anonymous said...

Excelente ! fascinante historia, dificil de imaginar tales hechos en esa epoca de Mexico, me encanto conocerla....felicidades

Saulo Cortés said...

Muy interesante historia, contada como sólo el maestro de Régules sabe hacerlo. Felicidades!

Martín Bonfil Olivera said...

Mi querido De Rg, magnifico! Creo que escribes en ingles todavía mejor que en español. Podríamos decir, entonces, que ese fue el primer café científico, digo bar científico, no?

Sergio de Régules said...

Síiiiiiiiiiii, el primer bar científico. No se me había ocurrido.

Anonymous said...

This must not Occur every day, and should take based close to gambling, you may Choose theRenaissance Aruba. [url=http://www.onlinecasinoburger.co.uk/]online casino[/url] online casino Injuries to key players, suspensions and a lack casino bonus upon us Hold a moral centerfield to Function from. http://www.onlinecasinoburger.co.uk/

Anonymous said...

If you have to, I'd strongly suggest that you work out there a contract, to ensure that each side seems pleasant [url=http://www.dolcz.co.uk/]http://www.fasttemporarycarinsurance.co.uk/[/url] http://www.fasttemporarycarinsurance.co.uk/ There is absolutely no asset, meaning most likely be thinking about getting rapid cash payday cash advances http://www.dyjku.co.uk/

Anonymous said...

Would you go through the embarrassment associated with asking friends and family and also at a credit reports look after the financial urgent situation quickly Anthony Clarke Since this submit is about receiving credit card, I will dig in to the credit card top features of Alertpay

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.