Transit of Venus

On June 8 Venus, as she does twice every 113 years or so, insinuated herself between Earth and Sun. Gliding across the disc of the sun like a ship on a sea of fire, she once again faithfully described her transit to earthly observers.

“The first Transit of Venus observed by humans occurred  in 1639, witnessed by one Jeremiah Horrocks in Lancashire. The suggestion that a Transit of Venus, observed from different parts of the world, could be used to measure the actual distance of the Earth from the Sun, was first made by James Gregory and Edmund Halley, (Astronomer Royal 1720-1742).

The realization that the transits of Venus could solve, what many saw to be `the last great problem in astronomy’ provoked enormous interest in the 18th century, and even countries that technically were at war (Great Britain and France) collaborated in this great international scientific experiment. Expeditions were dispatched to distant lands to observe the transits over as large a geographical area as possible. Captain Cook was sent on his first voyage to the Pacific by the Royal Society to observe the Transit from the island of Tahiti. Other astronomers traveled to Africa and throughout Europe to time the exact instant of transit. King George III built himself an observatory at Kew specifically for the purpose and Charles Mason traveled to Ireland to view the transit from Donegal.”

from Armagh Observatory’s “Story of the Transit of Venus”


I missed the transit of June 8, which is not as sad as it may seem since this part of the world only had a piece of it, and the skies of the Plains were up to their usual cloudy tricks.

This was, however, one of those odd convergences I enjoy so much. I was paying close attention to the transit, because just a couple of weeks earlier I had begun reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, a sprawling historical fiction concerning the exploits of Mason and Dixon before, during and after the surveying of their famous line.

The early parts of the novel (I’m still reading the bastard) are given over to a fictional account of Mason and Dixon heading down to the Cape of Good Hope to observe the 1761 transit for the Royal Society. Actually, Captain Cook was dispatched by the Royal Society to the South Pacific, where he observed and made detailed notes on the transit. But Mason himself did indeed, as the above excerpt notes, carve out another place in history for himself with his view from Donegal.

For Pynchon, the excitement generated in the 17th century over the Transit of Venus was emblematic of the age, when the mysticism and folklore of the past collided with a new spirit of scientific inquiry governed by reason and–observation.

They found their parallax view that year, and charted the distance to the sun, confirming the astronomical unit forever. It must have been exhilarating, to finally know for sure. It was an age of such times, of learning the orbits of the planets, the working of the human circulatory system, the structure and forms of matter.

Yet it was also a time of loss, when the Earth lost its place as the center of the cosmos and was unceremoniously relegated to a standard orbit around an average star in an outer arm of a run-of-the-mill galaxy. Witches lost their powers, and the elves and fairies faded into lore.

And now, as science itself has become the repository of received wisdom–and belief–the transit generates only mild interest in a fragmented society busy with its 24-hour news cycle, its frenetic work week, its American Idols. Science has done with Venus, for now, for she has told us all she can about our world.

And just last week my friends held their annual Summer Solstice party, an evening of music and beverages, with the band under the stars on a garden stage. I missed most of that, too, as I rushed from a restaurant. But I showed up, wearing a special t-shirt I had made to commemorate the occasion. It depicted the sun, with the words Solstice 2004 above and “Transit of Venus” below. I put a tiny dot on the edge of the sun to represent Venus at the end of its crossing. To me, it also represented the end of such events as occasions of national interest. I think we are done with “national interest,” at least of the non-catastrophic kind.

So Venus makes her silent transit, just as she always has, just as she always will.  And some of us marked the occasion, and some didn’t. In 2012 it will happen again, and then she will be off to her outside orbit until the next transit in 2117, when none of us will care. The serious, deliberate consistency of the cosmos goes on. The distracted attention of humanity fixes on what it will, when it will, perhaps understanding and perhaps dismissing this cosmic convergence or that. And therein, I suppose, lies the difference between the eternity of planetary motion and the immediacy of planetary living.

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