Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Venus as a Beauty Spot

We gathered at the Montgomery Hill Observatory in the northern hills of the Evergreen Valley College (EVC) around 3 in the afternoon, all agog about the celestial drama unfolding in front of the sun. Venus was moving across the solar disk, something that would repeat 105 years from now, in 2117, making viewing it literally the chance of a lifetime.

Parents brought their infants (one of whom promptly let out a wail to the amusement of all), toddlers and teenagers. Several grandmothers in saris and flowing dresses lined up like kids to peer through the telescopes.

Inside the dome was the 7-inch refractor telescope that Dr. Celso Batalha, professor of astronomy at EVC, fitted with an H-alpha filter to let in only the red light (wavelength of about 656 nanometer) emitting from the sun. Outside the dome, he had also set up four 8-inch portable, parabolic Dobsonians with clear filters. He was wise to do so because the space around the dome was soon milling with eager and curious visitors.
My first view of the transit was through the refractor telescope. The dark, perfect circle of Venus making its shy entrance at the lower left edge of a crimson sun was wondrous, simply wondrous. I looked for as long as I could before the next person in line gently nudged me to remind that there were others waiting for a chance to glimpse the wondrous sight as well.
Last night I read a piece in the New York Times by a professor of astronomy named Jay M. Pasachoff who wrote that “people on Earth can see with their own eyes the beauty spot — as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe’s — bestowed by Venus on the Sun.”
The imagery seemed perfect as I was viewing the transit: Venus was indeed a beauty spot on the sun, and its changing location only enhanced the fierce beauty of the duo. I also reminded myself to look up a picture of Marilyn Monroe. The sun as MM? I bet no poet ever thought of that. Kudos to Dr. Pasachoff.

If there was a hush of awe inside the observatory, outside was noisy celebration. Kids and grandmothers gave running commentaries on the minute-by-minute progress of Venus’s journey from left to right as they squinted through the Dobsonians. Of course, the experience had to be preserved for posterity, and so everyone (and I mean everyone) brought out their iPhones, Androids and SLRs and tried to capture the celestial scene. It was no simple point-and click, though. Only at certain frustrating angles could the view be captured and that required endless trial-and-error.
A teenage girl grew impatient with her father who kept fiddling with his camera for the perfect shot. Finally she could stand it no longer. “He will be doing this until Venus has completed her journey in six hours,” she said to everyone around. “He will still not be done.”

The girl’s mother, also getting angry at her husband, corrected the daughter. “No, Casalco will still be looking for the perfect picture when Venus returns again in one hundred years.”
As laughter erupted, the otherwise-imperturbable Mr. Casalco sheepishly withdrew.

Through the Dobsonians, we viewed the bright-yellow sun and the backlit Venus in the clear California sky. There were clouds but they were near the horizon. I helped Dr. Celso adjust the eyepieces as excited kids kept moving them.

The atmosphere was festive and yet there was an undertone of sadness. This was it for us. No more view like this in our lifetime. I felt the chill of mortality.

Scientists have correctly predicted the transits of Venus that come in pairs of 8 years: 1761 and 1769, 1874 and 1882, 2004 and 2012. What will the earth be like in 2117 and 2125? Will we still be fighting wars? Will there still be 1-percenters and 99-percenters, tyrants who indulge in unimaginable luxury while the rest survive on crumbs? Or will our succeeding generations conclude that our ways were unimaginative and untenable, and after much sacrifice and soul-searching, design a peaceful world where everyone led a reasonably good life?

Who can say? The thought  that I came away with from the celestial drama was that we were a part of what we had witnessed, no more and no less, and that the fate of our earth was entwined with the fate of the big, beautiful star and the planet moving across it, not only in a scientific but also in a transcendental sense.

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