In Botticelli's painting of the Birth of Venus a heavenly maiden arrived to drape her. It was as if the same maiden was on hand the eve of June 5 in Greenbelt, MD and made the setting Sun, as well as Ms. Venus, modest with a curtain of clouds. All the while more than 700 parents, grandparents and children flocked on NASA shuttle buses to the NASA Goddard Visitor Center to view her. Their trek was reminiscent of, but not as dangerous, as Captain Cook's 1769 shipboard observation in Tahiti.
Almost immediately we learned the first lesson required of an astronomer. Patience.
We balanced cardboard glasses on our noses and clutched earpieces on both sides of our heads and waited. And watched and waited. Still, Venus in transit was not revealed to the eager local viewers. Unfortunately, she will not take such a constitutional again until 2117.
Dozens of amateur astronomers, who all knew they would not be around on the next watch, had set up their telescopes with solar filters on the patio overlooking Greenbelt and the western horizon. Craig Levin, a library technician at NASA HQ said the required patience was nothing compared to that of a Chicago Cub's fan.
The clouds all but obscured the Sun for hours from the beginning of her transit until the end while observers in blue sky California were dazzled, I hear. I watched streaming videos on laptops and large screens. But it was not, I imagine, the same.
We'd learned a second lesson required of an astronomer. Disappointment with grace.
But NASA had plenty of people on hand to teach the third. Pursuit of knowledge.
While Venus inspires physical love in some, she also, according to legend, inspires intellectual passion.
A NASA summer intern Jake Richardson was, it seemed, so inspired as he spoke of Venus' singular tectonic plate. As a vulcanologist Jake loves volcanoes, hot lava spurts and the Ring of Fire. With patience (that word again) he explained to elementary school scientists erupting with questions that this could be because she has no water (even though Botticelli imagined disembarking from a large clam shell on the shore of a vast sea).
While most of the planet's physical features are named for heroic or mythological females, her biggest mountain, Maxwell Montes, is named for a scientist of the opposite sex. If it had not been for James Clerk Maxwell's work in mathematical physics which predicted the existence of radio waves which made radar possible, astronomers would never have been able to pierce her veil and spy her surface.
Jake loves to study monogenetic volcanoes. While I envisioned his explanation, I could not help but be reminded of long ago pimples that erupted magma-like pus once and never again. However, if your child loves rock hammers and buckets of water, he might want to follow in Jake's career footsteps up an active flow.
I bumped into another summer intern from Montana whom I had met the previous weekend at the Federation of Galaxy Explorers Galaxy Ball. Ryan Hannahoe, an astronomical photographer and teacher who charms students with celestial magic tricks. One he has up his sleeve is to put a model of the moon in a box and have it come out as green cheese.
His trick that day was to help us make solar cookies. Ten trays of 50 sugar cookies each were decorated and gobbled in record time by the visitors. Round cookies were spread with plasma icing, sprinkles represented the granular appearance of the photosphere and red stringy licorice looped into solar flares. Yesterday's special treat was to add a curved line of chocolate chips to mimic Venus' transit.
But perhaps most important is that Venus, looking on a monitor like a vulnerable speck tiptoeing across the burning "embers" on the Sun, also made a transit in 1882 which was documented by many photographers. Calibrations were made and it was discovered that the sun is approximately 93 million miles from the Earth. That distance, which is called the astronomical unit (AU), is a measurement we now take for granted yet has only been known for a little over a century. If you would like to discover it for yourself using satellite information taken during the 2004 transit, go to NASA's website.
Fortunately, after the anticlimax of the transit, I had to drive only 1/9,300,000 of an AU home.