Transit Times

I awoke on the morning of June 5 in a bottom bunk of the ‘Monastery’ at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. This small dormitory has housed a pantheon of astronomers over the past hundred years, including Edwin Hubble, whose private library survives intact behind a locked door at one end of the building. I had heard that the Monastery earned its name as a play on the surnames of its early inhabitants, Charles Greeley Abbot and Charles Edward St John, but, more likely, the term described the long-standing all-male dominion over the observatory — as over the whole science of astronomy.

At daybreak, with the 2012 transit of Venus still ahead of me, I felt my night’s rest had won a symbolic victory for any woman ever denied telescope time or a bed on the mountain.

I had observed the previous transit of Venus eight years ago, from the campus of an Italian university outside Rome, where I travelled in a large company of astro-tourists just to see it. This time, I had joined a congenial group of antique telescope enthusiasts, who I knew were already out at first light, setting up equipment hauled in vans and trailers up the tortuous mountain road.

Today promised to grant us the privileged status of second-time Venus-transit viewers. We would not get a third opportunity. No mortal can witness more than two transits of Venus in a lifetime: the motions of the heavenly spheres permit only two per century. Most of the human family has never seen even one.

As spectacles go, the transit of Venus — the sight of the small planet passing across the face of the Sun — is not beautiful. Many everyday sunrise and sunset vistas surpass it. Yet Venus’s promise to reveal secrets of the universe during each brief transit has seduced generations of scientists to sacrifice anything for the sake of observing the rare event. In the 18th and 19th centuries, scores of men died in such pursuits. In the 20th century, no transits occurred. The next one will come, in its due course, on December 10, 2117.

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