The International Astronomical Union drops the mic.
How far away from Earth is the sun? Not just, you know, very, very far, but in terms of an actual, measurable distance? When you're calculating, how do you decide which location on Earth to measure from? How do you decide which spot on the path of Earth's orbit will serve as the focal point for the measurement? How do you account for the sheer size of the sun, for the lengthy reach of its fumes and flames?
The measurable, mean distance -- also known as the astronomical number -- has been a subject of debate among astronomers since the 17th century. The first precise measurement of the Earth/sun divide, Nature notes, was made by the astronomer and engineer Giovanni Cassini in 1672. Cassini, from Paris, compared his measurements of Mars against observations recorded by his colleague Jean Richer, working from French Guiana. Combining their calculations, the astronomers were able to determine a third measurement: the distance between the Earth and the sun. The pair estimated a stretch of 87 million miles -- which is actually pretty close to the value astronomers assume today.
But their measurement wasn't, actually, a number. It was a parallax measurement, a combination of constants used to transform angular measurements into distance. Until the second half of the twentieth century -- until innovations like spacecraft, radar, and lasers gave us the tools to catch up with our ambition -- that approach to measuring the cosmos was the best we had. Until quite recently, if you were to ask an astronomer, "What's the distance between Earth and the sun?" that astronomer would be compelled to reply: "Oh, it's the radius of an unperturbed circular orbit a massless body would revolve about the sun in 2*(pi)/k days (i.e., 365.2568983.... days), where k is defined as the Gaussian constant exactly equal to 0.01720209895."