Williams column: The transit of Venus
By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
Being an astronomy enthusiast (“nut”) from childhood, I looked forward to the recent transit of the sun by the planet Venus during the late afternoon of June 5. The last such occurrence was on the early morning of June 8, 2004, but it was cloudy, resulting in my access to an event, millions of miles “higher” than the sky, being only obtainable from a cable attached to a pole whose topmost reach was considerably less than heaven-height.
The late afternoon of June 5, 2012, was also cloudy, so I watched the first part of the transit online (from that pole-attached cable again), computer-cast from a large telescope atop the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The “transit authorities” who work within the observatories there only have to concern themselves with one road, that which ascends and descends the slopes of the dormant volcano and leads to and from their workplace.
After a period of viewing at my computer screen, I gazed up and saw slits of blue appearing between the slats of my window blinds. Immediately, I thought to myself: “Even though Hawaii is a wonderful place (never having personally been there, I only imagine, but have seen pictures), I think that I would prefer to see what the transit looks like personally from Danville, Virginia.” I then drove to the Danville Science Center where I work, pulled out a small-medium reflecting telescope (4.5 inch Dobsonian), and grabbed a sheet of white paper upon which to project the sun’s image, that of Venus included.
While lining up the sun’s bright, projected image on that piece of paper, I thought of something “not so bright” which I had done out in my yard on the Old Concord Road in the very early 1960s. I owned a telescope, and figured that I would use some totally black sheets of exposed and developed film to filter out the sun’s light and perhaps, observe some sunspots. Instead of logically placing those totally black sheets of film over the telescope tube’s opening where the light was entering, I illogically placed them over the telescope’s magnifying eyepiece, then proceeded to look. During that very brief time of my sun-gazing, the film began to flow as a liquid before my eyes. I suddenly remembered having seen this selfsame sight before, and also the place in which I had seen it.
In those years at Granite Quarry School, we would sometimes be shown episodes of such educational, 16 millimeter films as “Industry on Parade,” or selections from the Walter Cronkite “You Are There” series. If the projector’s operator was not paticularly adept, the film would get stuck, and an image of a melting frame of film would then be projected on the screen (in retrospect, that image resembled those psychedelic images shown some years later on television in the latter 1960s). When I saw the film liquifying, I turned away just in time to save the vision in my left eye from the magnified, searing solar image breaking through the melted film. I stood there for a moment with a feeling of ineptitude concerning my use of the telescope, but at the same time feeling a debt of gratitude to the proficiency of my memory in recalling someone else’s ineptness with a school film projector.
With the little reflecting telescope and a clean sheet of white paper, on the late afternoon of June 5, 2012, I produced a pretty respectable projected image of the sun, the planet Venus, and a goodly number of sunspots. While watching Venus in transit, I thought about another use of the word “transit” from my earlier life’s work at the Caswell County Department of Social Services in Yanceyville. That particular usage of the word transit I had first heard some years before in the early 1970s when my mother, Lorraine Williams, worked at the store on West Fisher Street of the then Rowan Co-Operative Christian Ministry, under the direction of Pastor Jim Cress. The transits of whom my mother told me, and those with whom I later had the occasion to work as a social worker, were unfortunate individuals passing through town in an often thwarted effort to get back home, or to reach someplace where work had been promised to them. Due to the great distance, the planet Venus appeared to be moving extremely slowly in transiting the sun, but it needed no aid to continue on, unlike those remembered, transiting individuals, who often needed some manner of help to reach the places upon which their sights (and hearts) were earnestly set.
While transit-watching, I noticed some people going to a Zumba class in an adjacent building, so I hailed them over to view what I was seeing. While watching Venus’ transit, we also saw a transiting jet and some transiting birds crossing the sun’s equally magnified disc, all of them appearing as silhouettes, as did the planet Venus. Due to the telescope’s magnification, the flapping of the birds’ wings could be seen, but thankfully, the magnified jet’s wings remained rigidly fixed. I told the viewers that what they were observing (Venus’ transit, not that of the jet and the birds) would not be seen again from the earth until 105 years from now, in the year 2117.
After watching, and thanking me, the Zumba exercisers sped on to their class, during which time their movements probably seemed much more energetic to them than the apparently interminably slow rate at which Venus was crossing the face of the sun (the distance of millions of miles making a speed of approximately 80,000 miles per hour seem much less than the speed of people exercising in their tennis shoes).
A gentleman, carrying his small son in his arms approached, and both of them observed the transit, each thanking me when they left. As the man carried his young child away, I shouted: “Have a good evening!” to which the man replied likewise. Quickly thinking, I added: “And have a great 105 years!” Of that particular wish, I heard no reciprocation, but I did hear him laugh, heartily.