[FPSPACE] Harvard PR Director seriously underestimated public
interest in Venus Transit
ljk4 at msn.com
Mon Jun 14 00:58:51 EDT 2004
For Scientists, It's Hard to Love Venus
June 13, 2004
By KENNETH CHANG
THE last time Venus passed in front of the Sun, in 1882,
Britain, France, the United States, the Netherlands,
Germany, Spain and every other country that fancied itself
a scientific superpower mounted expeditions to far-flung
parts of the world to watch.
Astronomers then hoped to use the eclipse, or transit of
Venus, to calculate an important, unknown astronomical
quantity: the distance between the Earth and the Sun. (It
didn't work. Distortion of Venus' shape as it passed over
the edge of the Sun made accurate estimates impossible.)
This time, when Venus eclipsed the Sun on Tuesday, most
professional astronomers didn't care, at least not
scientifically. They had long ago pinned down the Earth-Sun
distance at just under 93 million miles using other means.
A transit of Venus is today as unsurprising as a
grandfather clock that does indeed chime 12 times at
For example, David A. Aguilar, director of public affairs
at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in
Cambridge, Mass., admits, "I was pretty blasi about it."
Although Venus was once regarded as Earth's sister planet
because it is almost the same size, planetary scientists
have of late given it short shrift, instead devoting
attention and a parade of space probes in the opposite
direction, toward Mars.
Venus' 900-degree, sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere not only
makes it a difficult place to explore, but would have
obliterated evidence of past life had anything evolved in
its younger days. NASA currently has no plans to return,
although the European and Japanese space agencies are
planning to send spacecraft to orbit Venus.
Expecting just a smattering of curiosity, Mr. Aguilar
assigned one volunteer to handle calls from the public
about the transit. "We thought we'd be lucky if we got five
phone calls the last day," Mr. Aguilar said. "You just
Instead, Mr. Aguilar's single volunteer was swamped. Ten
others joined in answering questions. The
Harvard-Smithsonian astronomers put 22 telescopes on the
roof of the building and spent last weekend making devices
to allow people to watch the eclipse safely.
On Tuesday, around the world, millions looked up at a Sun
with a black hole in it as Venus leisurely loped in front
before sliding off again six hours later. Still more people
watched the planet's movement on video streamed across the
Instead of a scientific event, this transit of Venus was a
communal one, a once-in-a-lifetime event - twice if you
live another eight years. The next transit of Venus occurs
June 6, 2012. But after that there will not be another
transit until Dec. 11, 2117.
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