Look! Up in the sky!
Well, actually, I hope you didn’t. I know you value having eyesight and all.
Most of my friends know that I’m a certified space geek. On Tuesday I had an awful lot of company. Around the world, people were looking through telescopes, watching computer monitors or otherwise doing everything they could to safely watch the “transit of Venus.”
It might not sound worth the effort to some. After all, it’s basically the world’s tiniest eclipse, as Venus moves across the sun like a lost penny across a football field. But as the Franklin Mint likes to remind us, rarity has a certain value. You get two of these transits eight years apart – and then you have to wait more than 100 years for the next one.
OK. So it’s rare. Big deal. So are copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special, right?
Granted. But unless you’re into really bad Wookie fiction, I’d pick the transit any day. For a tiny disc, it tends to inspire a lot of frenzy.
The transits of the 1760s may have been the wildest, as European scientists tried to scatter across the world to see if they could record the event from different points – and, incidentally, find out just how far the Earth was from the Sun. And while it was Captain Cook’s 1769 measurements that helped fix the distance (about 93 million miles, for the record), the struggles of those who didn’t quite make it eight years earlier make even more entertaining reading – entertaining, that is, in the sense of “Boy, I’m glad that wasn’t me.”
“Jean Chappe spent months traveling to Siberia by coach, boat and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers,” wrote Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything. The swelling was due to unusually heavy rainfall, which the locals in turn blamed on the strange man pointing odd objects at the sky.
First impressions. So important.
These days, no one had to be Indiana Jones to measure the transit, but it was still worth measuring. Last time, Venus helped us find ourselves. This time, it may help us find the neighbors. By watching Venus, we know a little more about how to find planets in other solar system, work out how big they are, maybe even piece out a little more about their atmosphere.
Not bad for a view from the cheap seats, huh?
It’s also very reassuring for a teacher’s son. Most teachers have said at some point that there’s no such thing as a stupid question (and almost immediately get students who try to prove them wrong). I tend to believe something very similar – that there’s no such thing as useless knowledge.
Role-playing games taught me how to calculate percentages.
Children’s mysteries helped me learn how to estimate distance.
Even something as light as studying stage dialects has helped with getting Missy to brush her teeth at night. (It pays to use an outrageous French accent to count how much is left to do, even if the giggles do tend to spatter the mirror a bit.)
When everything fits with everything, anything can be good to know.
So watching Venus dance across the Sun? Why not? You never know when it might come in handy.
You simply can’t planet.