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Wonder in the heavens

Venus’ transit across the face of the sun important for humanity


By Kara-Leah Grant

Nothing reminds humans of their insignificance more than a night spent stargazing. It is impossible to grasp just how infinite the universe is, and how far away the stars really are. The concepts escape our minds, but in doing so, they expand our minds. There will always be more to know, more to discover and more to explore.

For ancient peoples, stargazing was not accompanied by precise instruments and advanced technology. Yet somehow, they knew enough facts and figures about the stars to project exactly when certain astral events would take place – even thousands of years ahead of their time.

This was a time when astronomy and astrology were intricately linked. Today, with concrete proof the yardstick by which "truth" is measured, astronomy and astrology have separated, yet both still concern themselves with the study of the stars.

This week, a rare celestial event will hold the fascination of astronomers, astrologers and anybody else who finds wonder in the heavens. On June 8, visible to 75 per cent of the world, Venus crosses the face of the sun – or transits across the sun – something no living person has ever seen, yet because Venus transits occur in pairs, the world will again witness this event in June of 2012.

"There’s only a small part of the world that won’t see some of the transit, and we’re in it, which is unfortunate," explains local astronomy John Nemy with a hint of disappointment. "During the last two pairs of transits (one in the 1800s and another during the 1700s), Venus was used to figure out how far we were from the sun. It was a hugely important event in the world of astronomy."

To gather the necessary data to make the calculations, leading nations sent expeditions to remote corners of the globe to time exactly when Venus appeared to begin its transit of the Sun. The times were compared and the distance to the Sun calculated using the known distances between expedition locations on the Earth and trigonometry. These events marked the first time nations joined together to complete one scientific mission.

Nemy says the rarity of the event is one reason the transit is generating great interest across the planet, but it is not the only reason.

"Our knowledge and awareness of astronomy has ramped up in the last 30 or 40 years, plus the equipment available now from a technical point of view is so much more advanced than it used to be," says Nemy. "The pursuit of astronomy is trying to understand and relate it back to what is going on in our lives here in a factual way. Our connection with the celestial sphere was way better long ago than it is today. We have become very disconnected from that due to the type of lives we lead today. It’s a detriment to our lifestyle that we don’t consider the cosmos a part of ourselves and a part of what we do."