Yesterday’s transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun, a rare astronomical event, prompted me to break out my old telescope (a Christmas gift from when I was around twelve). It’s a pretty cheap refractor, but even so, it provided a remarkably good viewing experience for my family and I. Here are a few shots.
Despite the fact that Venus’ interior orbit to the Earth’s brings it between us and the sun fairly often (once every 584 days), the slight difference in the angle of the two planets’ orbital planes makes the exact alignment needed to produce a transit a much more rare occurrence than one would expect. They occur in a curious rhythm of 8 year pairs, separated by alternating gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years, making a complete cycle of 243 years. (The previous pair was in 1874 and 1882. There was one in 2004, the first of this pair, but there won’t be another until 2117-2125.) The transit of Venus was first observed by the English astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639. The parishioners of St. Michael’s church, in Horrock’s home village of Hoole, paid tribute to him and to his discoveries in the dedication of two stained glass window roundels.
The first, located most prominently in the central position behind the altar, shows the symbol for Venus within the sun’s yellow sphere. The surrounding Latin phrase is translated, quite predictably, as Venus seen in the midst of the sun, along with the Latin date of the 1639 transit. (VIII [Ante Diem] Kalendas Decembres = 8 Days before the Kalends of December = November 24; MDCXXXIX = 1639)
The other window, along the aisle, sports a rather romanticized (and inaccurate - he projected the sun’s image quite precisely onto a piece of paper, rather than a sheet) depiction of Horrocks’ observation of the event. The Latin phrase below, Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem, translates as Behold! What a marvelous spectacle, and the answer to so many prayers! (Horrocks, on the conviction that his own detailed observations of the planet’s motions were more accurate and reliable, had defied Kepler by predicting that 1639 would produce an actual, rather than a near-miss transit, as the venerable astronomer had foretold, and was proved correct.)
It’s a real shame that art and science are routinely set at odds in our own day, and more specifically that “science” so often takes a myopic approach to the exclusion of the bigger picture. The mechanics behind an astronomical event like a Venus transit are certainly fascinating in their own right, but the wonder of it is multiplied when you realize that such an event is merely one step of a rapturously beautiful and intricately choreographed series of musical dances that are spinning around us and over us all the time. If you want to learn to appreciate it more, this delightful little volume is a great place to start.
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise him in the heights. Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts. Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.