Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Transit of Venus ... Sort of

In my last post, I mentioned that my grandmother recently died. Now, before you think I've gone all lugubrious on you, hold up for just a moment as I want to tell you a story. It was the autumn of 2010 and my grandmother had taken very ill. While we later learn that she was suffering from low blood pressure due to a badly-prescribed blood thinner, her health and spirits dipped markedly. She was exhausted all the time, described her legs as "dead" and could barely take care of herself. To his credit, my father performed some heroic acts of piety in nursing her away from the brink. And, as he did so, my aunt suggested that I should try to write to my grandmother on a daily basis as a means of lifting her spirits.

My grandmother was something of a technophile; into her 90s, she checked her email avidly, streamed videos of political debates and wrote all of her commentaries on the little laptop she always had by her side. Thus, once "commissioned" by my aunt to do so, I began collecting stories, anecdotes and other bits of information that I could pass along to her in these daily emails. My grandmother took great interest in history, the natural world and occasions for indulging cruel delight—Schadenfreude—in my travails. I share the following story with you in her absence as she would have loved this.

I'm sure you saw the stories over the past couple days about the Transit of Venus, right? This is rare astronomical event in which Venus becomes visible passing across the face of the sun. It has only happened something like seven times since the invention of the telescope in the early seventeenth century. It prompted celebrated journeys to far-flung places in the 1760s as explorers like Capt. James Cook sought to bring back data on the time and phenomena of the Transit, which would help to establish the distance of the earth from Venus and the sun.

So, when I got a call yesterday from a colleague asking if I would be interested in witnessing this event that will not happen for another century, I was delighted to join in. The conditions looked auspicious as we hiked up to the mountain-top campus of Université de Montréal.

We arrived at about 5 PM, a good hour before the Transit was to begin. We found the joint already jumping with amateur astronomers, curiosi and gawkers.
As you might imagine, some craft is needed to watch an event like the Transit. You can't just stare at the sun! So, we kitted ourselves out with the eclipse goggles that this dufus is wearing.
The proceedings were deemed worthy of television as the interview unfolding in the central foreground of this photograph suggests. And, indeed, all looked like it was going swimmingly on this beautiful, sunny day.

However, about fifteen minutes before the contact was to begin, a thick blanket of cloud rolled in from the northeast. It completely blocked out the sun for the next hour and a half as the wind swirled up and lightning cracked through the sky in the distance. As the sky blackened, we made a quick exit for the Metro around 7:30 PM having seen neither hide nor hair of the Transit. By the time I got out of the Metro, the rain was bucketing down and I got properly soaked as I ran home. I think I can hear my grandmother laughing as I write this. Oh well; I can try again in another hundred years or so.

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Just as a little post-script: you may be interested to know that I was later able to see the transit of Venus. Or, I was able to model it while making enchiladas where the boiling sauce became the sun and the cap for the soy sauce was Venus. Spectacular!

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