Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Yesterday the planet Venus passed across the face of the Sun for the second time in a decade, although we won't see a similar sight for another century. I went to the University of Sydney where astronomy students and staff had put together a variety of telescopes and other equipment to observe this rare celestial event, despite viewing being limited to sporadic breaks in the clouds. I was particularly impressed with one piece of steampunk inventiveness: a large plastic funnel that had been converted into a viewing screen so that many people could see at once. Despite the clouds, we had an excellent view of the small black dot in its progress (you can see it at about the 7 o'clock mark in the image below). A big thank you to the University, staff and students who made it possible for ordinary observers like me to witness a twice-in-a-lifetime event!
Here's what Jules Verne said (in his book, Celebrated Travels and Travellers) about the 1769 transit, observed by Captain James Cook in Tahiti:
And now the moment for the execution of the primary object of the voyage approached. Cook accordingly took steps for putting the instructions he had received into effect....
On passing the sun, the rim of Venus was elongated as though attracted. A black point or dark ligament, a little less dark than the body of the star, was formed; the same phenomenon occurred upon the second interior contact.
"The observation," says Cook, "was made with equal success at the fort, and by those I had sent to the east of the island. From the rising to the setting of the sun, not a single cloud obscured the sky, and Mr. Green, Dr. Solander, and myself, observed the entire transit of Venus with the greatest ease.... We noted a luminous atmosphere or fog surrounding the planet, which rendered the actual moment of contact and especially of interior contacts somewhat indistinct. To this fact it is owing that our observations varied somewhat one from the other."
Jules Verne himself was alive for the transits of 1874 and 1882, although he may not have actually observed either event. I do hope you had an opportunity to see this one, and that some of us might still be alive in 105 years when the next transit occurs!

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