See People Seeing the Transit of Venus
For the last time in 105 years, Venus crossed between the Earth and the Sun. Two RPCVs who are employed by NASA sent each Peace Corps post (or at least the PC Indonesia post) a packet of information about astsronomy and Venus’s tiny eclipse. The real prize of the packet was three eclipse glasses—cheap paper shades with polarized plastic lenses that allow you to stare directly at the sun. Who isn’t attracted to a strange white guy wearing funny sun glasses staring up at the sky in front of a white board in the middle of a school basketball court? Not my students.
There’s something irresistable about the rare occurences of glalactic phenomenon. An eclipse—be it solar, lunar, or that of Venus—draws the sort of attention that far exceeds the public’s interest in the natural sciences. It doesn’t matter if you are astrophysicist, lit major, five year old, or even a creationist. There’s some sort of aura to the event. It’s cool. Quick web searches for pictures of eclipse glasses led me to a picture of imbibing Austin restaurant goers enjoying the outdoor patio with drinks in hand and paper glasses on nose. What is the attraction? Is it the chance to see something—something you see so often you take it for granted—in a completely different light (or absence of light)? Is it that the force at hand—the blotting out of the sun by another body—is just too emense to resist? The fact that astronomers are able to announce such a precise schedule of these events certainly reduces the effort necessary to catch a glimpse. So long as someone has informed you of the time, it’s pretty easy to steal a glance at some point during the seven hour window (in the case of the Transit of Venus) that you have to see things for yourself. Then there’s the fact that the schedule might also throw people into a desperate panic that if they don’t see this one, they wont be able to see another for ten years, twenty years, or any point in their lifetime.
Whatever draws people to these events, it was evident at my school the morning of June 6th. If you untangled the double-negative from two paragraphs prior, you already understand that my students were quite curious to learn why I was staring up at the sun with strange shades. Last week (as well as this one) was exam week, which presented plenty of free time for my students to view the Transit of Venus. Before exams started, I showed off the glasses to a few students and teachers. During the first exam, my counterpart helped me haul a whiteboard from a classroom out on to the basketball court. I convinced my counterpart that I could handle sharing the information without a microphone and speaker system, and I began to mark up the board. My counterpart went around to classrooms to interrupt exams and tell them about the opportunity that would be present during break:
Transit of Venus—essentially a solar eclipse of Venus
The last such Transit until 2117
Occuring from 04:49h until 11:49h on June 6 only
After the first exam let out, I was swarmed with students who wanted a chance to try on the glasses. The clouds held back, and we had a great view of the small black dot slicing across the left side of the sun. The students who had taken a peak before exams started told me that Venus was closer to the middle than it had been earlier in the morning, so we used a large picture of the sun that NASA had sent to trace Venus’s path across the sphere.
The bell for the second exam rang, and fifteen minutes later the last group of students left to re-enter the classroom. At the conclusion of the second exam, we still had another thirty minutes to view the transit. The second wave was a lot smaller than the break-period rush, but a fair number stuck around to see that Venus was now in the upper-left-hand corner of the sun. It was 11:30h, and Java’s tropical, near-ocean atmosphere could no longer hold off the formation of grey clouds. By the the Transit’s scheduled conclusion at 11:49h, the sun had been shrouded in a thick blanket. We missed the opportunity to watch Venus cross the line from shaddow to invisibility. Clouds occasionally parted, but it was already apparent that Venus had been lost to a part of the solar system beyond our viewing angle.
Another PCV post on the transit of Venus: Elle C.