Friday, September 24, 2010

As is my custom, I have been reading up about the equinox and its cousin the equilux. I don't mind the shorter days, the dark and the rain and the mystery. We don't care much about the moon anymore, just one more thing cluttering up our sky, but I find it terribly interesting how for just a bit yesterday, for one fixed point, every person on earth was having the same experience. Even if they didn't notice. We all started a new season together, however the hours of actual light and dark were split. There are too many geographical artifacts scattered around for that sort of thing to matter anyway.

Coincidentally I was also reading just recently about the transit of Venus in 1761, when science decided it would up and collaborate and observe the transit from all over the world in order to determine the exact value of the astronomical unit. (I have been reading this, which has been unexpectedly delightful, if confusing to the old man on the bus who asked what I was reading about that was so funny and received "astrophysics" as a reply. I'm always accidentally alienating people with enthusiasm and nerdiness.) Venus transits happen in pairs eight years apart every hundred something years, and the timing worked out so that there wasn't a single one during the whole of the 1900's.

In 1761 and then again in 1769 a whole mess of scientists took off for their expeditions regardless of weather and geopolitical disputes, and as is always the case came to a conclusion that was less than precise, but better than what came before. Eventually we invented technology that just plain went to space and measured what needed measuring, which is certainly efficient but lacks the romance of exploration. I much prefer to think of all of these people in their lonely outcrops, staring at the sky or straining through instruments in the hopes of learning something new.

Venus transits the sun, after all, and we know that looking at it too long or finding it too suddenly burns the inside of our eyes and photochemically dents them. All of those people staring at all of those skies maybe changed that day, physically, even if they didn't know it, eyes altered in the same way. Different, then, from all of the people who had never lived in a time of a transit, and from all of the people who did but never knew to look up.

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