A Moment of Awe

A Moment of Awe

The phenomenon known as the transit of Venus occurs when Venus passes between Earth and the solar disk. The last transit of Venus occurred on June 6, 2012. Venus will not transit again until 2117. The event inspired reactions from my brother-in-law’s desire to watch Game of Thrones instead (because, and I quote “Venus is stupid and I don’t care”) to the eye-opening awe expressed by one of my best friends in the blog post which spawned this one. By now, everyone and their brother has blogged about the event, and my post is coming late. Still, since my reaction lays on the side of awe, I feel it warrants mentioning.

Transits of Venus occur only about twice every 100 years or so. As opposed to transits of Mercury, which occur about 13 or 14 times a century. It all has to do with distance (Mercury is much closer to the sun) and the trajectory of the Earth and Venus orbits. Due to an incline in Venus’s orbit, it’s less often in the right position to intersect Earth’s view of the sun.

Like eclipses, it can be a pain to view the event because it’s one of those ‘do not look directly at’ deals. You need a pin point viewer or eclipse glasses and a hell of a lot of patience to get the live show. Since the event spawns a million amazing photos and there’s nothing stopping everyone from looking it up the next morning on youtube in all of Nasa’s high definition glory, one might ask ‘what’s the point of watching the live show?’

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, I didn’t even try to catch the event live. I don’t have the patience to sit outside on my deck for 6 hours (yes, it lasts that long!) with a box over my head. Hell, I’m too lazy to even make a viewer because I just assume as soon as I put in real effort, it’s going to be cloudy (and it was). I, like so many others, defaulted to viewing the event online where there were a plethora of telescope images updated at semi-regular intervals over the course of the six hour event. It feels like cheating; I never actually looked up at the sun. But I did see some amazing photos and all the while I had an amazing sense of this is happening right now.

If you’re anything like my brother-in-law (admit it, you were watching Game of Thrones while Venus was transiting!), you’re wondering “what’s the big deal?”

We’re somewhat spoiled living in the information age. We don’t have to spend 7 hours outside squinting at a little black blot as it moves across the sun to experience the transit of Venus, and when it’s over we have time lapse videos and inspiring pictures at our fingertips through the wonder that is Google. But realize that modern technology first viewed Venus’s transit in 2004. Before that, no one in our lifetime had partaken in the event and only blurry photos and sketches had been used to record the phenomenon. Imagine the patience required to view this event before the internet and the comparatively small reward. (Yay, the small black dot moved across the large white circle and now I get to do mathematical equations!)

But the transit of Venus is more than just a minor abnormal event interrupting the dull humdrum of normal astronomical minutiae. The event has played a critical role in our understanding of the universe. It was the transit of Venus which allowed us to accurately calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. And it was the movement of the planets across our heavens which allowed us to figure out that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system and that the planets move in ellipses rather than circles. (See what you can accomplish without the Internet!) In fact, I’ll bet some modern scientist who viewed the recent transit is figuring out something awesome right this moment based on the information gathered during the event. An event which I also viewed. A piece of history which I partook in. Science is awesome!

Science aside, it only takes a glance at the modern pictures to understand why the transit of Venus inspires us. It truly puts things into perspective; in all that vast universe we are so tiny. Yet that black disk, little more than a speck when compared to the awesome might of our sun, continues relentlessly in its path. There are forces in the universe we can barely begin to understand. We are small and perhaps insignificant. Yet we, like Venus, persevere. For the joy in life is in the journey and the significance is often in the act, not the outcome.

4 Replies to “A Moment of Awe”

  1. Since it was cloudy here, too, I’m glad we got to experience the transit together over MSN. I still think your brother in law is silly for preferring to see Game of Thrones over a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’ll never forget how small I felt when watching that little black speck moving across the satellite images of the sun… but at the same time, I felt it incredibly empowering.

    When you consider the size of Venus compared to the size of the sun, and the size of yourself compared to Earth, little bigger than Venus, it’s astounding to see what we’re capable of.

    We may be tiny, we may seem insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe around us, but we are the creatures that developed the technology that let us share the experience together, even though we’re thousands of miles apart. We are the creatures that have molded an entire planet around us, finding new ways to work its resources every day.

    We may be tiny, but when you think of the impact one single life can have on millions of people around them, that’s pretty darn impressive for some beings that are pretty darn small.

    1. I agree! I’m really glad I decided to watch it online for that reason. Getting to talk to you and to Rowena, commenting on the latest update of the telescope images and looking at all the magnificent photos people took, that was part of what made the experience amazing. :D

  2. I remember years ago when i was a kid and that comet hale bop passed over. We say the comet the first night and then for the next week we we’re staring at this really bright star saying ‘thats the comet’ turned out it was Venus lol

    1. Oh I remember Hale Bopp! I was just a kid when that passed by, still in love with the stars. I wanted to be an astronaut until I discovered what kind of math they had to do. Then that dream died XD But ah well. I still love all things astronomy.

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