I’ve been trying to limit my consumption of news as of late, due to my tendency to get caught-up and “over-read.” Therefore, I nearly missed the much-hyped “Transit of Venus.”
The astronomical event consists of a nearly 7-hour window when the planet Venus passes across the face of the Sun. The event has only been witnessed a handful of times since the 17th century and occurs in cycles; the last transit was in 2004, but the next one won’t be until 2117.
I first read the news around 10 a.m. on the morning of the event. Here in Melbourne, Australia, the transit occurred roughly between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. I immediately decided that I had to go and try to witness the event. Those words from the news article reverberated in my head. Once in a lifetime event! 105 years until the next one! 105 years! 105! Moreover, eastern Australia was one of the places in the world fortunate enough to see the entirety of the event. The transit seems to have an added significance here, due to Captain James Cook’s 1769 observation of the event while in Tahiti, shortly before his first landing in Australia.
I was fortunate to be living in Washington, D.C. during Barack Obama’s election and inauguration as president. The inauguration of course took place in January, and it was very cold out. I didn’t have a ticket to the inauguration, but I still went out and stood on the grass near the Washington Monument with thousands of other people, watching the event on jumbotron T.V.’s set up around the Mall. I couldn’t understand my D.C. friends who stayed in to watch the inauguration. “People are coming from all over the country, and the world, to be here for this unprecedented historic occasion, and you can’t be bothered traveling twenty minutes downtown to be a part of it???”
The sky was heavily gray and overcast, as is often the case during Melbourne winter. However, I still hopped on the tram to head down to the city’s lovely Botanical Gardens, which contain an observatory. Due to a stopover for lunch (and giving the clouds time to break), I arrived at the observatory grounds at about 1:30 p.m. And, lo and behold, just about then, there was an extended break in the clouds!
The lawn outside the observatory was full of people mulling about. There were at least a dozen or so amateur astronomers who had set up decent-sized telescopes, all equipped with special sun-diluting filters. Dozens more people wearing lapel stickers were lining up beside these telescopes, waiting to get their chance to see the magic in progress. I quickly purchased a $2 ticket, received my lapel sticker, and went to line up.
I only had to wait a few minutes before I got my turn at one of the telescopes. I trembled a bit, excited, as I peered into the eyepiece. As I looked in, I saw…a big white circle, with a small black dot near the rim. I stared for a few moments, trying to comprehend the significance of what I was seeing. Celestial bodies in motion! 105 years! So rare! The vastness of the universe in perspective!
I stood up, nodded to the amateur astronomer manning the telescope and stepped off. The woman behind me in line stepped up to take her turn at the eyepiece. I looked around the field, at the telescopes and the people mulling about, chatting. I looked up at the sun, but of course couldn’t look directly at it; just a sense of its usual, immense brightness before turning my eyes back earthward.
Before the 2:30 deadline was up, I went to a few more telescopes, of different shapes and sizes and colors, but all showing the same white circle with black dot.
I wanted to appreciate it. I really did. I intellectually accepted the great beauty and significance of the event. But in reality, for all intents and purposes, it was nothing more to me than a black dot on a white circle.
I’ve had many similar experiences in my life, especially when traveling. Times when I’ve been at a famous building or a site of renowned natural beauty. UNESCO World Heritage sites, “Must-See!” attractions, once-in-a-lifetime events. I’ve respected all these places and moments, and tried very hard to appreciate all them to the fullest degree that I could. But often I feel as though I’ve fallen short; that I didn’t really “get” it.
Just the other day I came across a wonderful travel article by Ben Groundwater in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled, “The best tourist attractions in the world…aren’t”:
He describes his recent travels in California, and how he enjoyed his visit to a dingy punk music club in Berkeley far more than San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf. That punk music club is also famous, for launching the careers of various punk rock bands, though its fame is valued by a much smaller segment of the population. However, for people in that segment, like Groundwater, a visit to that club will carry a more special and personalized meaning than to a general “must-see” attraction like Fisherman’s Wharf.
I particularly loved this quote from him near the end of the article: “It’s easy to follow the guidebook line when you travel, to get obsessed with ticking off the big-name attractions because you feel you should. But the secret is finding the sites that really appeal to you.”
Great stuff. I could (and soon may) write a more detailed ode to that statement. To bring it back to the Transit of Venus, though, I respected the “once-in-a-lifetime” nature of the event, and am happy that I trekked down to the Botanical Gardens and experienced it.
But honestly it didn’t mean that much to me. It was a black dot on a white circle. I saw it, but I couldn’t fully bring myself to appreciate it.
What I did appreciate were the dozens of amateur astronomers out with their telescopes. The event was clearly of momentous importance to them. Their eyes lit up as attendees would ask them questions, and these arm-chair Galileo’s would delight their small audiences with facts and details gleaned from countless hours studying the workings of the universe. They were able to excite small children with tales of space, while helping them up step-ladders to watch history in motion. The astronomers’ eyes shone with excitement, their words echoed with passion, and their natures seemed to revert to child-like wonder for those few hours. Please pardon the awful pun, but it truly was their moment in the sun.
For the astronomers, it was a momentous day. For some lay observers, it was a special day. For other observers, it was a momentary curiosity. And for still others, no observation whatsoever took place, and life carried on as usual.
To each his or her own special moments…