On June 8th, 2004, Venus transited the sun for the first time since 1882. It’s going to happen again on June 5th-6th, 2012, and then not again until 2117. So don’t miss the next one.
I’m standing across the street from the nun’s house and wondering if the copper beech tree that people come from all over to admire has laid a branch or sheaf of leaves so much in the way that my wife, whom I’m about to leave (though she does not know this yet) won’t be able to see Venus transiting the sun in the short time she’s willing to devote to observation.
I got her to leave her coffee and makeup to see something she has little interest in except that she’s heard about it on the TV. But I know it will go down well with her friends if she can say she’s seen it, because they know she’s married to a guy who does stuff they never heard of.
They will shake their heads, Wow, how about that. You actually saw it.
I was surprised that she agreed, because seeing Venus transit the sun is only interesting if you know why it was important historically. Like in the eighteenth century. And I know she won’t ask me to explain it to her. She and her friends like to know the names of things, whatever they are, but that’s it. I’ve been coming to terms with being the person whose activities are noted, but are not worthy of inquiry, and the final result of that coming-to-terms-with is that I’m going to leave.
While I’m setting up the tripod and leveling my theodolite I realize I’m sorry I asked her to come out and look. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe setting up something to use as a defense when things get rough, as they’re going to?
Will I find myself saying, Well, I showed you the transit of Venus, which proves I am not a mean and nasty man?
I haven’t had my theodolite out of its case in years because there’s no work for it, except once I used it to level a brick patio. Talk about overkill. In the old days I shot the sun with it; long before GPS I did latitude and longitude by measuring the sun’s altitude and azimuth at noon, looking through the darkgreen sunfilter. I’m remembering the first time I screwed it to the eyepiece and wondered if I should test it first, realized what the hell could I test it on except the sun, and quickly swung the theodolite around and up and looked. And didn’t burn out my retina, and saw the sun’s disk moving. Except of course it wasn’t actually moving, as it won’t actually be moving this morning, although Venus will be.
She knows my theodolite is very old and is probably wondering if there’s any danger. She’s got to be thinking that if I look first she should be OK, unless I shut my eye, meaning to trick her into burning hers out. I know how she thinks: be sure he looks first.
I’m thinking about how Captain Cook, James Cook, sailed to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus on June 3rd, 1769, so that astronomers could work out how far it was to the sun. Other telescopes would be looking from Europe. Parallax. It was all about parallax.
In the modern vernacular, it was a ballsy thing Cook did: sail from England into 17 degrees South, 149 degrees West counting on clear skies and a solid viewing platform on the precise day and time he needed them. Joseph Banks drew observing plans marked with the appropriate words Zenith and Nadir.
Cook and Green observed the exterior ingress to the sun’s limb at 9 hours 21 minutes local time, and exterior egress at 15 hours 29 minutes, also local time. This is only the third transit of Venus since then. I know all this because I looked it up last night. I liked encountering new usages of ingress and egress. I knew the technical usage of zenith but not of nadir, a fine coincidence considering that my nadir appears to be now, local time, and my exterior egress will probably be next month, also local time.
I look through the eyepiece at the sun, which is not obscured by the copper beech, and as usual do not burn out my retina. The sun’s disk nearly fills the field of view. I force myself to scan the whole field looking for a dark spot moving, which is hard, because the sun itself is moving relative to all the dust and dirt, the spidery fungus, inside the theodolite.
But it’s all good. It feels like the old days. I’m juggling three levels of perception, four if I count that the eyepiece is an inverting one. But since I don’t know whether Venus is transiting the sun’s top or bottom, I don’t have to worry about inversion. The sun looks the same right side up or upside down. Ah, slow movement. That’s it.
“Here,” I say, stepping away, “Go ahead and look. It’s that little dot towards the top, which is really the bottom.”
She says, “What?”
I say, “It’s an inverting eyepiece.”
She says, “What the hell is that?”
“Upside down,” I say, “Nevermind, just look for the little black dot moving.”
“Jesus,” she says, “I have to go to work. You said this would be quick and there are who knows how many little black dots.”
“Yes, but only one is moving.”
“I don’t see it. What a waste of time. I’ll catch it on TV tonight, they probably have a better whatever than this one.”
I pick up the theodolite and its heavy tripod and pack it down the corner where there’s a better view. While I’m setting up again her car hisses by. I don’t wave.
Here it’s good, a clear sightline. I should have come here first, but the lure of looking for Venus up the nun’s passageway was too great.
All in focus again, very nice, the dot’s moving. Venus. I step away from the theodolite to take in the entire scene. Has anybody in the entire history of the world ever observed the transit of Venus on a sidewalk before a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house? No. Surely no. Might anyone care? Again no, and no one except me cares about the nun’s passage business either.
A woman walking her dog comes up the street and gives me a quizzical look, which is reasonable since presumably she’s not used to seeing a guy out at 7 AM standing at a painted wooden tripod looking towards the sun through what only sort of looks like a telescope.
“Transit of Venus,” I say, “If you’d like to look you may. It’s quite safe. And it’s transiting the top it looks like, but it’s really the lower part of the sun because this has an inverting eyepiece.”
“Oh,” she says, “So maybe I should stand on my head to look.”
We laugh. The dog barks.
I wonder who she is. She’s pretty and has no wedding band but I don’t hold onto that thought because I can feel myself and my theodolite already in motion in my own great Southern Ocean, tacking, sailing away from nuns, copper beech, corner, wife.