Saturday, June 9, 2012

Transit of Venus

On Wednesday I watched a segment of the transit of Venus at the NSW State library. The astronomic event was projected from a telescope in Hawai’i onto a large screen at the front of a darkened auditorium. The image of the sun filled almost the whole screen, while Venus was a small dark disc, fairly near the perimeter by the time I got there.

I had to push a heavy door open to get into the small auditorium. Inside, I found a handful of people, scattered across the rows of seating. The atmosphere was hushed and respectful. One couple conversed a little in whispers, but mostly we were silent, gazing at the screen, where no discernible change was taking place (at least I couldn’t perceive it). I felt as if I were in a church (or possibly a Woody Allen film – although there didn’t seem to be any romances surreptitiously developing).

At one point a woman walked in, and having experienced the struggle with the weight of the door, declared, “Oh, we’ll have to keep this door chocked open.” She did so, and then proceeded to carry on an enthusiastic and clearly audible conversation about the transit with a man who had come in with her. They didn’t (even!) sit down, but stood in one of the aisles. With the door open, the chatter from the cafĂ© directly outside also drifted into the room. From the other occupants of the auditorium, there was a mute, but palpable sense of distress at this disruption. The woman was sensitive enough to pick up on this, and upon leaving asked whether we’d like the door closed. It was duly shut, and the hushed atmosphere of awe and mystery descended again.

When my friend Jason arrived, I made a whispered observation to him about the religion of science. Thinking about it later, though, the atmosphere of devotion in the room could equally be seen as a kind of pagan worship. After all, we weren’t making any measurements or carrying out any other kind of scientific activity. The achievements of modern science made it possible for us to watch the transit of Venus in this manner, but all we were doing was gazing at an image of the sun and watching as a small dark planet, about the same size as the earth, moved (extremely) slowly across it.

As a visual spectacle, it was uneventful to the point of evoking the early film work of Wim Wenders, and yet there was something compelling and lovely about sitting in the dark with a quiet group of strangers, united in our wonder at the workings of the solar system.

The first recorded transit of Venus in 1639
Although ancient cultures knew of Venus and recorded the planet’s movements, it appears that its transit of the sun was a discovery of early modern science. Since the seventeenth century, astronomers have known that the transits occur in pairs, about eight years apart, separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. The whole pattern repeats every 243 years. In 1627, Kepler was the first person to predict a transit of Venus, by anticipating the 1631 event. However the first scientific observation of the transit of Venus was not made until 1639. The movement of Venus we observed on Wednesday was only the eighth transit to be predicted, and only the seventh to be scientifically observed.

Learning these facts made the modern period of history suddenly seem much shorter and more intimate to me. Watching the screen in the State Library, I felt a kind of astronomical camaraderie with Captain James Cook, who observed the transit of Venus in 1769 from Tahiti on his way to Australia. To observe this event also made the solar system seem more familiar in spatial terms, as if the transit of Venus were the cosmic, scientific equivalent of a local festival designed to encourage a sense of belonging to this particular solar system, as “our place” in the universe.

Some people say that to gaze at the stars gives them a powerful sense of their own insignificance. This can be liberating, but it can also tend towards nihilism, a sense that nothing we do really matters. I don’t know what it says about the state of my ego that this episode of star- and planet-gazing seemed to have almost the opposite effect on me – it made me feel at home in the world.


Jason (I'm famous!) said...

Interesting. Thanks.

I agree that there isn't anything terribly scientific about watching a picture that's just a slight enlargement (and endimment) of what we could see with our naked eyes. It makes perfect sense to call it pagan instead. And yet, I've observed the sciencephiles in my cosmology class getting all excited about the transit of Venus (proof: while most people in the world couldn't give two hoots for it. So it must have a FLAVOUR of science to at least some people. Why is that? I don't know. Maybe because for most people science is about certain types of objects, whereas for philosophers of science it's really only about processes (the processes scientists do).

Juzzeau said...

Yes, you're right - the more I thought about it, the more I realised that we were celebrating a kind of modern scientific ritual, although with something similar to pagan pleasure. From looking at the news coverage, it seems as though the transit did have pretty wide popular appeal, too.

Jonas said...

Thanks for the post, I love it. Welcome to the emotional side of natural science! I know that almost religious happiness also from looking at equations, maybe you should give it a try. But I somehow disagree with the contrast that you describe between insignificance and the feeling to be at home in the world - I can feel both at the same time.

Juzzeau said...

Hi Jonas, are you the Jonas I used to dance tango and discuss physics with? If so, lovely to hear from you! (And nice to hear from you, even if you're not that Jonas :). I think I understand what you mean about being able to feel at once insignificant and at home in the world - these quasi-religious experiences often do seem to have something paradoxical about them.