The planet Venus, known as the evening star, was the star of the show Tuesday afternoon at the home of Dr. Robert Benson, Coastal Bend College physics professor and his wife, Karen.
More than 30 guests were there to witness an astronomical event that will not happen again in their lifetimes: the transit of Venus across the disk of the sun.
Venus was to begin its journey across the sun at 5:04 p.m. Tuesday. Accordingly, Benson told his guests to start arriving at 4:30.
He set up two telescopes, a camera and a pair of binoculars just outside a portable tent to offer shade in the 99-degree weather. All were equipped with sun filters to protect the eye.
Music accompanied the event — thanks to real estate retiree Jimmy Jackson, whose pickup was parked across a field from the telescopes.
Appropriately, the first selection was the Rondeau from “Symphonies and Fanfares for the King’s Supper” by French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret. The tune now is better recognized as the original theme for the PBS program “Masterpiece Theatre.”
“About five minutes to go,” Benson announced.
A few held special glasses for viewing the sun in bright daylight; one carried a welder’s mask.
Of the two telescopes, one was attached to an astronomical drive, so that once adjusted, it would automatically track the sun. The other telescope projected the enlarged disk of the sun onto a piece of paper.
“Shall I start it?” Jackson asked.
“Yes,” Benson said, “go ahead.”
From Jackson’s public address system the music switched to a military band playing John Philip Sousa’s “Transit of Venus March.”
In the telescopes, slowly but steadily, it looked as if some diminutive pac-man was taking a circular bite out of the sun.
“That’s it. It’s beginning.”
“Where is it supposed to be?”
“In the upper-right, no, the upper-left quadrant.
The image projected by the second telescope was reversed.
“I can’t see it.”
“You will, once the planet is completely against the sun.”
“Oh, there it is!”
Larger than the sunspots but merely a dot against the sun, the second planet in the solar system was 26 million miles from earth, and another 67 million miles from the sun.
Venus is a viewing paradox. Dante described it as a third heaven, but the climate there is anything but heavenly: a surface temperature of almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit, a surface pressure 92 times that of earth, and a constant overcast sky comprised of clouds of sulfuric acid.
A small, black dot taking as much as six hours to cross the sun competed against other, earthly interests — such as the counter with snacks from the garden in the Bensons’ home where guests could watch, in air-conditioned comfort, images of the transit broadcast from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite and the Hawaii Astronomical Observatory.
“I call this fruit salad ‘Heavenly hash,’” Kay Past said, pointing to a bowl on the snack table. “I was going to make ‘Nipples of Venus’ but that was a lot more work.”
A notebook computer showed images of the transit just taken by astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station.
Other small bodies also demanded attention: On a blanket beneath a tree, nine basset hound puppies, three weeks old.
Clair Barnhart sought respite from the sun in the shade on the Benson porch. “I didn’t know a thing about the transit until Robert mailed me,” she explained. “But Robert’s enthusiasm is contagious.”
After about 45 minutes, interest began to wane. The silhouette of the planet slowly moved across a sun pockmarked with sunspots.
“Boy,” a man said, “that Venus is kicking those sunspot’s ass!”
Across the field, a clutch of chickens appeared on a road, intense with their own purpose.
“Oh look, it’s chicken transit time.”
In a corner of the kitchen, taking refuge from the puppies and the heat, Lisa Benson was simultaneously searching Google and texting on her cell phone.
“I’m 14, the youngest one here and I don’t really know what’s going on,” she said, and paused.
“But it’s cool – a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
“Have you ever heard of Jerry Horrox,” Benson asked in his email invitation. “Horrox (sometimes spelled Horrocks) was the first person ever to see a transit of Venus. That was in 1639. As a teenager, [Horrox] learned mathematics and astronomy on his own. Oh, if only my students today would have this determination!” Benson lamented.
But some archaeologists maintain that wall paintings in the ancient city of Mayapan, in the Mexico state of Yucatan, indicate the Maya recorded transits of Venus in 1153 and 1275.
By the late 1800s, astronomers knew the pattern of the transits occurred in pairs eight years apart (the last transit was 2004) separated by more than 100 years.
“All who missed a view of the transit of Venus,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle in 1882, “are to be commiserated, for should they live to be 100 years old, the chance will not come again.”
Each century’s transits have been marked by increased viewing technology. In the early 1800s, the poet William Wordsworth, in his poem “To the Planet Venus,” noted:
True it is Nature hides
Her treasures less and
Man now presides
In power, where once he
in his weakness;
Science advances with
The next transit is 105 years from now.
But last Tuesday’s transit may have produced some long-lasting, if unexpected, effects.
One of the guests, retired psychologist Nancy Lawson, couldn’t help but wonder “how many babies born today will be named ‘Venus?’”
At least one new form of life. As she posed the question, snuggled under the Benson porch was a small variety of morning glory.
“This is a hybrid from two other wild varieties,” Benson said. “It’s unique,” he said, tenderly fingering a tiny bloom.
Benson and his wife are answering the next line of Wordworth’s sonnet:
But are we aught
in love and meekness?
“We’ve decided to name the morning glory “Transit of Venus.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.