Events of June 5, 2012
The whole world was dark, everything visible to my eyes coated in the same uniform darkness except for the small, oddly-shaped patches of dim orange directly at the center of my vision. I felt a cramp in my neck as I mentally beseeched them to brighten, to expand.
"See anything?" A voice asked, from somewhere in the darkness.
"No, not yet." I replied, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
I wondered what had brought that person here, to the steps of the National Air and Space Museum's Mall-facing entrance. For me, it had been a visit to the supermarket eight and a half years before...
It had been sometime in the fall of 2003, although I can't remember the exact day or month. I had come to the supermarket with my mother and was eagerly scanning the checkout rack for the latest issue of the now, sadly, defunct Disney Adventures, when I saw another very intriguing publication for sale...
The Old Farmer's Almanac, 2004, the cover said. Well, I had read enough about Ben Franklin to know what an almanac was, so I asked Mom to buy it on the spot. I couldn't tell you now most of what was in that book, although I read it cover-to-cover. All that I remember now are a few jokes, some advice about storing chrysanthemums during the winter, and an article explaining that the coming year would host a very special astronomical event.
For the first time since 1882, the orbits of Venus and Earth would line up such that observers on Earth could see Venus move across the face of the sun. Such transits occurred in pairs, eight years apart, with more than a hundred years between each pair. Since "we have now experienced the longest possible wait", of 122 years, nobody currently on the planet, the article reminded me, not even "the very oldest people now alive," had witnessed such a thing. Naturally, I found this all very exciting and was determined to see the transit when it occurred. However, I seemed to be the only person in the area who felt this way, and thus I had no one to tell me exactly when to observe or to offer me a solar telescope or eclipse glasses to look through. I spent the day in school, doing entirely ordinary end-of-fourth-grade things which I have since entirely forgotten.
What I do remember is that I missed the transit, and I was very unhappy about it. The newspapers and magazines were full of photographs taken by people who had been luckier than me, equipped with the right information and the right tools. However, I took comfort in the last line of the almanac article -- "This event will also be visible in 2012."
So I went on and did ten-year-old things, and went on to middle school, and then to high school, and several birthdays and school years and Olympic games and presidential elections came and went, but I never forgot that in June of 2012, I would have another chance to see a Venus transit. And in my junior year of high school, my astronomy teacher, Mr. Seltzer, let me borrow his back issues of Astronomy magazine and Sky and Telescope to carry around in my backpack and read in my free time, because he wasn't doing anything with them.
Some of those magazine issues were from the summer of 2004 and they featured images and letters sent in by readers, who had literally been observing it from all over the world. My two favorite letters had been from a subscriber in prison who had been able to ask permission to watch at his work assignment, wearing a welding helmet, and a group who had traveled to Iran to watch -- and found a plaque left by a German expedition who had come to that very same town to watch the 1874 transit! When I read about the experiences these people had, the excitement and wonder they'd felt, the friends they'd made while observing the transit, I kicked myself for having missed it.
"But wherever I am in the world," I told Mr. Seltzer "I MUST see the 2012 one!"
"Oh, don't worry, Zoe." He told me, in his kindly-old-and-experienced-astronomer voice, "You'll be in college then. Just go to the observatory at your college and they'll have telescopes set up."
That reassured me, because I was very well aware of the facts:
- Unlike 2004, there would be no "next time" if I missed the 2012 transit.
- The next transit after 2012 would not occur for another 105 years, until 2117.
- In 2117, I would be 124.
- The oldest person ever only lived to be 122.
Although I made a joke of it with my friends, I really DID have a few nightmares about missing the 2012 transit as it got closer and closer. Once I figured out that I'd be back in Washington, D.C. this summer, I planned on going either to the Naval Observatory or the National Air and Space Museum to watch. I eventually settled on the Air and Space Museum because it was closer to my internship at the Rayburn federal office building on Capitol Hill and because I was (very, very) familiar with getting there.
At first, I planned on buying eclipse glasses online to carry around all day as an extra precaution, but a friend of mine who works at Science magazine still had his pair from the 2004 transit and had upgraded to a piece of welding glass this year, so he was happy to give them to me. Outside of the Science building, I tested the glasses -- everything appeared black except for the bright yellow disk of the sun. I could even see sunspots! Watching the transit with these glasses would be a snap, I thought.
(As you can tell from my description, eclipse glasses are far darker than ordinary sunglasses, as they must be to allow you to safely observe the sun. As you have all no doubt heard many times, neither sunglasses nor photography film are sufficiently dark to allow you to observe the sun safely, either during an eclipse or under normal conditions.)
The night of June 4th was clear and cloudless, so I went to bed excited, but hopeful. However, when I opened the blinds the next morning at 6:30, the sky was full of clouds! (I screamed either "NOOOOOOO!" or "AHHHHHHHH!" although I can't remember which.) However, I reminded myself that the transit would not start for another twelve hours, giving the weather plenty of time to change, and that I'd had luck in this department before.
I went to work, but kept looking out the window to check on the weather. The sky cleared a few times, only to cloud over again. By the time I left work at 5 p.m., it was mostly cloudy, but I couldn't give up! I had planned to meet up with my friend Clara at the National Museum of the American Indian, eat a quick dinner at the excellent cafeteria there, and then head over to Air and Space for the viewing that began at 6 p.m.
Unfortunately, that museum was closing early for the day, so we made do with sandwiches from a nearby Starbucks instead. At least that meant we could eat right on the steps of Air and Space, near where museum employees had set up the telescopes. Even though the sky was still cloudy, there was a big crowd gathered at the entrance, and a woman was demonstrating the orbital mechanics behind the transit with a mechanical model of the solar system. Clara picked up some glasses of her own at a table where they were being given away. Two TV vans were parked next to the museum, and we could see a reporter getting ready in front of a camera.
"It's like the Oscars." I whispered to Clara.
We found seats on the edge of a planter and watched the sky, looking for any trace of blue. We heard the reporter film his teaser, summing up our feelings: "I'm here in front of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where in a few moments, we're supposed to observe this century's last Transit of Venus. But right now, the only thing transiting the sun is these clouds."
The word went out that the transit had started, but we still couldn't see anything. The Smithsonian employees helpfully reminded everyone that they were showing a live webcast from beautiful, cloudless, Hawaii (can you tell I was jealous) inside, but Clara and I were determined to see it with our own eyes if at all possible, so we stayed. We could see where the sun was behind the clouds, but they still blocked it out.
I found myself sharing Oliver Wendall Holmes' thoughts about the 1882 transit:
Dimly the transit morning broke;
The sun seemed doubting what to do,
As one who questions how to dress,
And takes his doublets from the press,
And halts between the old and new,
Please Heaven he wear his suit of blue,
Or don, at least, his ragged cloak,
With rents that show the azure through!
"C'mon, you're a freaking star, can't you burn through a little water vapor?" I muttered, shaking my fist at the sky.
"Don't taunt the sun, or it might go out on us." Clara told me.
"Good point." I said. I split my time between photographing the gathered crowd and looking at the sky through my glasses. I caught fleeting small dim-orange shapes where the clouds were thinner, but still no view of the full sun itself.
Then, an opening! Everyone cried out as the top half of the sun was visible for a few seconds. I thought I saw a dark speck on the disk, but the view was so fleeting I couldn't tell if it had been Venus, a sunspot, a cloud, a trick of my eyes, or just wishful thinking. And then, clouds again.
More openings appeared, but they were all either higher or lower in the sky than the sun. Some people started to leave. Clara and I didn't, but we began to get worried. The sun would set with the transit still in progress, meaning that we only had until 8:30 or so to see it with our own eyes.
At around 7 p.m., an hour into the transit, a newspaperwoman with a tape recorder came over to interview us. She asked us why we were there, why we thought the transit was important, and if we thought there might be aliens somewhere out in the universe watching a transit of Earth.
I said that it was certainly possible that aliens in other solar systems might be able to detect the Earth by watching it pass in front of the sun and dim it briefly, a method we ourselves use to find planets around other stars (only ones larger than the Earth so far, though.) Closer to home, I knew there were certain special times when the Earth could be seen from the surface of Mars as a black dot crossing the face of the sun, just as we were hoping to see Venus do that afternoon. The next such transit would be in 2084, and I told her I hoped humans would be on Mars to see it.
The reporter thanked us and moved on. The clouds seemed to be thinning, so Clara and I headed down to join the very long line around a telescope, just in case. And for just one moment -- the sun broke through! We were all suddenly standing in the light. I looked up with my glasses on and tried to focus. And this time, I definitely saw a dot! I hurried over to the telescope and tried to look that way, but the clouds had moved in again. But I'd seen Venus, if only for a few seconds!
We kept on waiting after that, hoping for another opening, until the sun sunk behind the trees along the Mall. But no further opportunities presented themselves. Instead, Clara and I talked with a group of adults who had also come to watch. We talked about how rare an opportunity these transits were, so rare that the one Captain Cook observed from Tahiti had only been four or five of them ago. I mentioned an item I'd read in one of Mr. Seltzer's magazines, a remark made by an astronomer just before the 1882 transit: "there will be no other till the twenty-first century of our era has dawned upon the Earth, and the June flowers are blooming in 2004."
"Imagine someone in 1882 trying to imagine 2004." I said.
"That far-flung year of 2004, with their flying machines and their horseless carriages!" One of the men remarked, laughing.
"I bet we can't predict what 2117 will be like any more than they could predict 2004." A woman said. We all nodded in agreement. Someone looked at their watch. We all had to be getting home.
Behind the trees and the clouds, I knew Venus was still making its way across the face of the sun. And it wouldn't do so again until the twenty-second century of our era dawned, and the December snows would be falling in 2117.