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Rare astronomical events

There has been quite a bit of publicity about watching the transit of Venus across the Sun. Apparently for a few hours earlier this week, you could see a small black dot move across the face of the Sun.

While I have been following the reports, I did not bother to try and actually observe it. Despite my fascination with science, I never bother to try and personally observe these rare events. The fact that something is rare and may happen only once in my lifetime does not seem to me to be a compelling reason to go to some lengths to see it, if the effect itself is not worth watching for its own sake. I did not even bother to look at the recent ‘super moon’.

My interest in these events is determined primarily the scientific knowledge they provide and the role they played in history. In the case of the transit of Venus, its occurrence in 1769 provided one of the first accurate measures of the distance to the Sun and in order to do so required an elaborate multinational effort by scientists, reportedly the first of its kind. This was no mean feat in those days. That kind of stuff is fascinating to me. Watching a small pea-sized dot slowly passing over the face of the Sun while taking precautions to avoid damage to the eyes is not.

I think my disillusionment with much-hyped astronomical events can be traced back to the comet Kohoutek debacle. It was predicted to pass by so close to the Earth in 1973 that it would give observers a spectacular naked-eye view as the comet’s tail became aglow. People all over the world watched for it and it was a total bust. You could barely see anything. The more common Perseid showers provide another example of an astronomical event that fails to live up to its hype.

It is possible that my lack of enthusiasm for observing such rare astronomical events is shaped by my greater interest in the theories of science. It may reflect negatively on me as a scientist but so be it.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    Sometimes rare events can have scientific importance. As a for instance, the total eclipse of the sun in 1920 was observed by Eddington and associates and provided a measurement that supported Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

  2. Skip White says

    I was excited to see both the “super moon” a few weeks back, as well as the transit of Venus yesterday, and both times, it was cloudy in my area. At least I got to check out the convergence (?) of Venus and Jupiter a few months ago. Still, I understand what you’re saying, these types of events are usually less spectacular than all of the hype leading up to them, unless you’re using special equipment, or understand what makes these events special in the first place.

  3. yaakob says

    Apparently for a few hours earlier this week, you could see a small black dot move across the face of the Sun.

    This sounds like the inverse of Carl Sagan.

    I had an unexpected opportunity to see the transit (provided by a physics professor, btw) and it was amazing.

  4. Henry Gale says

    It’s nice that science stuff is getting a little hype. I’d rather an astronomical event get the press than some silly Hollywood gossip.

    Plus, maybe some youngster gets inspired by a black dot crossing in front of a big yellow ball.

  5. Sunny says

    I felt lucky to have a chance to see it at the local observatory. It was especially nice to see young children there as well.

    Yes, it was a small dot but that was fascinating in itself. I know the sizes of the planets relative to the Sun but it was still humbling to see Venus next to the Sun. What I find remarkable is that the Sun itself is only a medium-sized star and Venus appeared only as little black dot next to it.

    Sometimes I feel that in the days of Hubble we take the ability to see these heavenly objects for granted.

  6. Frank says

    I was able to view the transit last night, and while it wasn’t “beautiful” in any aesthetic sense (just a little black dot on a big bright circle projected through binoculars onto a piece of paper), I thought it was “beautiful” in the sense that one could see the physics of orbital motion in an unusual way. The movement of the sun and the earth relative to each other is apparent every day, but you could also see the movement of Venus relative to both in real time.

    I am annoyed by the hype that usually surrounds astronomical events that make it into the popular press. The “supermoon” was just a full moon a bit brighter than most full moons, and the Perseids can be a really nice meteor shower, but they will never be the Leonid storm of 1966.

    I am hopeful, though, that the hype about the Venus transit had some value. I turned on the NASA webcast of the event, mostly to see where I should be looking on the sun’s disk, and stayed for a while because the video was supplemented by audio of interviews with NASA and other scientists talking (a little) about the historical significance of transits and (much more) about current research. I found it quite interesting; I hope others who viewed the webcast did so as well.

  7. ollie says

    What I liked about it is that it was a good chance for people to get together to see something fun.

    Our community hosted a viewing party; our local museum put out some small telescopes and the local amateur astronomers set up their telescopes; one was good enough for one to see some solar flares as well.

    It was the coming together with the community that made it fun.

  8. Frank says

    Skip,

    I think “conjunction” is the word you are looking for. Bright planetary conjunctions can be great–if, like me–you find the night sky to be aesthetically appealing. Such events are usually overhyped by the media–when they are covered at all, which if fairly rare. I’ve found that watching at least a few days before and a few days after gives a satisfying context.

  9. Scott says

    As a non-scientist with an interest in astronomy, I take every opportunity I can to witness astronomical events. When Venus, Mars and Jupiter were easily visible in the night sky a couple of months ago, I made it a point to go out every clear night to look and reflect. It was a humbling experience. On summer nights, I often float in my pool staring up at the stars and wonder if someone on a planet orbiting one of those stars is floating in his pool, looking at our star, and wondering the same thing.

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