June 5th, 2012


Links I found interesting for 05-06-2012


The Transit of Venus

The jolly gentleman who I use in this icon is the great Irish astronomer Sir Robert Stawell Ball, probably the best known populariser of astronomy in the British Empire (and possibly America too) of the later Victorian era; he was Astronomer Royal for Ireland from 1874 to 1892, and then director of the Cambridge Observatory until his death in 1913. I had the great pleasure of going through his archives while doing my M Phil back in the summer of 1991. In his best-selling book, The Story of the Heavens, he has quite a long section on the 1882 transit of Venus; and since there won't be a more appropriate evening to post it for another 105 years, this is what he had to say about the one before last.
I venture to record our personal experience of the last transit of Venus, which we had the good fortune to view from Dunsink Observatory on the afternoon of the 6th of December, 1882.

The morning of the eventful day appeared to be about as unfavourable for a grand astronomical spectacle as could well be imagined. Snow, a couple of inches thick, covered the ground, and more was falling, with but little intermission, all the forenoon. It seemed almost hopeless that a view of the phenomenon could be obtained from that observatory; but it is well in such cases to bear in mind the injunction given to the observers on a celebrated eclipse expedition. They were instructed, no matter what the day should be like, that they were to make all their preparations precisely as they would have done were the sun shining with undimmed splendour. By this advice no doubt many observers have profited; and we acted upon it with very considerable success.

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We succeeded in obtaining sixteen measures altogether; but the sun was now getting low, the clouds began again to interfere, and we saw that the pursuit of the transit must be left to the thousands of astronomers in happier climes who had been eagerly awaiting it. But before the phenomena had ceased I spared a few minutes from the somewhat mechanical work at the micrometer to take a view of the transit in the more picturesque form which the large field of the finder presented. The sun was already beginning to put on the ruddy hues of sunset, and there, far in on its face, was the sharp, round, black disc of Venus. It was then easy to sympathise with the supreme joy of Horrocks, when, in 1639, he for the first time witnessed this spectacle. The intrinsic interest of the phenomenon, its rarity, the fulfilment of the prediction, the noble problem which the transit of Venus helps us to solve, are all present to our thoughts when we look at this pleasing picture, a repetition of which will not occur again until the flowers are blooming in the June of A.D. 2004.
I wonder if this blog entry will be read by someone in 2117?

Ball concludes this section:
It may be asked, what is the advantage of devoting so much time and labour to a celestial phenomenon like the transit of Venus which has so little bearing on practical affairs? What does it matter whether the sun be 95,000,000 miles off, or whether it be only 93,000,000, or any other distance? We must admit at once that the enquiry has but a slender bearing on matters of practical utility. No doubt a fanciful person might contend that to compute our nautical almanacs with perfect accuracy we require a precise knowledge of the distance of the sun. Our vast commerce depends on skilful navigation, and one factor necessary for success is the reliability of the "Nautical Almanac." The increased perfection of the almanac must therefore bear some relation to increased perfection in navigation. Now, as good authorities tell us that in running for a harbour on a tempestuous night, or in other critical emergencies, even a yard of sea-room is often of great consequence, so it may conceivably happen that to the infinitesimal influence of the transit of Venus on the "Nautical Almanac" is due the safety of a gallant vessel.

But the time, the labour, and the money expended in observing the transit of Venus are really to be defended on quite different grounds. We see in it a fruitful source of information. It tells us the distance of the sun, which is the foundation of all the great measurements of the universe. It gratifies the intellectual curiosity of man by a view of the true dimensions of the majestic solar system, in which the earth is seen to play a dignified, though still subordinate, part; and it leads us to a conception of the stupendous scale on which the universe is constructed.
I'm sorry to report that Ball lost all sight in his right eye in 1883, shortly after the solar observations which he records here in such detail. I hope that this was just a coincidence; it certainly encouraged him to develop the writing career which made his name.