Stargazing: The Transit of Venus

June 7, 2012

As a stargazer (a lighthearted term), I have often looked at the heavens—as in my personas of poet, skeptical UFOlogist, even miracle claims investigator, or often, simply as one interested in the real world that science best explains. As a boy I was taken by my uncle Charlie Cunard to the University of Kentucky observatory to see Mars. Over the years I have witnessed solar and lunar eclipses, Perseid meteor showers, and many other celestial events, both with and without telescopes. (Once, at Conyers, Georgia, where “sun miracles” were being reported, I looked in vain for one, working with Georgia Skeptics who had set up a telescope equipped with a solar filter.)

As shown in two accompanying photos, I visited the Buffalo Museum of Science on June 5, 2012, joining hundreds of other stargazers in viewing the transit of Venus—the passage of that planet between the earth and the star we orbit, the sun. This is a rare phenomenon, and the periodicity of the transits is odd: since the eighteenth century it has happened after as few as 8 or as many as 121.5 years. It next occurs in 2117.

The transit of Venus is indeed a spectacle—see the third photograph, made by James McGaha at his Grasslands Observatory in Tucson. But it has also played a historic role in helping to measure the distance of the earth from the sun. Triangulation was used, and for accuracy the observations were taken at a considerable distance apart: from South Africa during the 1761 transit and from Tahiti in 1769. Today’s measurements, using radio telemetry and computers, are of course much more accurate.

Still, transits continue to provide valuable data to astronomers. For example, the tiny amount of reduction in light as viewed from the earth during a transit can provide a comparison to use with other stars so as to help predict the presence of their potential planets. (See Gerry Rising, “Nature Watch,” The Buffalo News Science Page, June 3, 2012.)

Nature’s phenomena (or alleged phenomena, in many of my cases), and science’s attempts to understand them, enrich our lives. Such was the event hosted by the Buffalo Museum of Science which invited the public to view the transit of Venus from the building’s roof using solar spectacles and telescopes with solar filters. The planners also arranged to have a vending truck parked outside (where I ordered a couple of hot dogs) and on the second floor (where the dinosaur skeletons roam), ice cream being made using liquid nitrogen. Isn’t science wonderful?!!