Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Transit of Venus

This past Tuesday and for the last time until 2117, the second planet in our solar system, Venus, crossed the sky between the Earth and the sun.  It was an event that brought out every dork, nerd, and geek around the world and had them congregate at planetariums and observatories.  I am a proud member of those three teams and was pleased to be able to put my face to the sky and looked directly at the sun, even though my coworker said to me before I left for the evening, "Please don't look directly at the sun."  I had on special glasses, y'all.  I am not a complete idiot.

Getting the special glasses was a whole other story.  In terms of arriving just when things were getting under way, we got there late.  We all have jobs that often require us to stay late and Tuesday, June 5, was just like every other darn day so the parking situation closest to the planetarium was filled up with cars jammed into every crevice on the street so we parked at the Soldier Field lot and hiked over.  That turned out to be a very good thing.

When we left Soldier Field we met a young man who had the glasses in his pocket.  "Can we look, please?" we asked and he said, "Of course," and as we were looking, he told us they'd run out of glasses inside.  A family walked up and asked about the glasses, he explained how they ran out but added, "You are welcome to look through these now."  There is camaraderie in geekery.

We'd walked another couple of blocks and decided it might be time to have another look and asked a gay couple if we could have a peek and got the response, "Why don't you keep those.  We have another pair."  Generosity in nerdity, y'all, and now we could look directly into the sun for as long as we wanted.

This is what it looked like:  a big ball of something with a small black dot in the upper right. (When there is any sort of astronomical event, the skies in Chicago are mostly overcast, guaranteeing you will see nothing, so this night was exceptional on every level.)

Courtesy of NASA Flickr gallery
As we got closer to the facility, we started seeing long lines of people wanting to look through the more high-powered telescopes.  There were hundreds of people in those lines but there were also backyard astronomers who brought their personal telescopes, lenses, and filters so others could enjoy it.  There were people with intense filters on their cameras who were pleased to share their work.  "Did you get anything good?" we asked, and they gladly showed off their efforts.

The culmination was walking into the lowest of low levels in the facility, a facility so far down there is no cell service, so close to the Earth's core that air conditioning is offset by the magma heating the floor.  (One part of the last sentence is a lie.)  It was an auditorium with a live NASA feed from Hawaii.  They put on different filters to make it change colors (calcium filters made it blue).  They ran a simulation of what Venus looked like as it went close to the sun, the sun's flames looking like they were licking at Venus.  An Adler Planetarium astronomer came into the room and answered questions.  Not only were some of the answers not understandable, some of the questions were totally incomprehensible for the layperson.  The air down there bristled with dorktosterone.

When we'd had our fill of the excitement -- about 30-40 minutes -- we made out way to the surface and entered into the warm Chicago evening.  One more telescopic experience -- a backyarder had a telescope set up with a can that reflected light onto a piece of paper across the top of it.  You saw a glowing ball with a black dot.  "It's called projection," he said.

It was a totally satisfying experience and as we walked back to Solder Field we were almost run over by a group of Segway tourists, each looking more smug than the next, believing we should jump to get out of their way because they were going fast!  On Segways!  On sidewalks where families with little kids were walking to enjoy both the Transit of Venus and the lovely evening.  If assholes had wheels ... no, wait, they did that night.

As we entered Soldier Field, we thought we'd have one last look into the sun with the glasses and a family asked us about the specs.  We passed the glasses on to them to use.  Generosity in geekery, y'all, and we expect to be dead by the time 2117 rolls around.

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