The roof of Ryerson Lab during the transit of Venus. (Photography by Melinda Morang, AB’08)
Not-so-rapid transit
In which we watch Venus plod across the face of the sun from the quads.

June 5, 2012

5:01 p.m. Having climbed the six stories or so to the observatory deck atop Ryerson Physical Laboratory, I discover that roughly 60 other people have had the same idea. I think it’s great that so many people are displaying an interest in the universe, but at the same time, part of me wants them to express that interest somewhere else. The Ryerson Astronomical Society (RAS) has set up viewing stations on the roof. One is inside the telescope dome; another is a video feed from a telescope resting on a ladder poking over the building's crenelations. A third is rigged up in my presence—half a pair of binoculars looking out of a cardboard shield and projecting an image on a white screen held up by some unfortunate RAS member. 5:05 p.m. “It’s starting,” announces Melinda Morang, AB’08. A former RAS president—sorry, “grand pooh-bob,” (sic) as they’re officially known—she’s just finished her graduate studies in urban planning at the University of Michigan and has returned to Chicago for the transit. I look at the video feed: a tiny divot is visible. That would be Venus, inching its way across the sun’s disk. We’ve got a long way to go. 5:09 p.m. “I have two exams tomorrow,” says an attendee gleefully. “I don't know what I’m doing here.” 5:10 p.m. Steven Lucy, AB’06, is holding up the white cardboard in back of the jury-rigged binoculars. He’s wearing a sign that says “Solar shades $5,” and selling them from his shirt pocket. It’s a fundraising tool for the club, I discover, although Steven is plenty entrepreneurial on his own. 5:14 p.m. “I can see it! I can see it!” says someone with the hand-held shades. “You can see it with those?” asks a companion. She takes the shades. “I can’t see it.” 5:17 p.m. A student lends me his shades. My myopic eyes can’t spot Venus. 5:21 p.m. “I'm taking a Shakespeare class next quarter. I’m really excited, but I’m going to die. I’m a math major.” 5:22 p.m. On the video feed, I watch as Venus achieves tangency, the moment when it ceases to be a bite on the edge of the sun and becomes a complete circle within the sun’s disk. “It’s all inside now!” shouts a girl behind me. “That's what she said!” responds her friend. 5:23 p.m. Dean Armstrong, AB’03, demonstrates how to make a pinhole camera with his fist. A tiny ladybug-sized image of the sun appears in the shadow of his hand. Venus is far too small to make out. “Why can’t a bigger planet transit?” jokes Steven. (As a former RAS grand pooh-bob himself, he knows full well there are no bigger planets between us and the sun.) 5:55 p.m. Peggy Wilkins, AB’92, lends me her sun filter. Finally, I see Venus with my own eyes. “The perfect job at this event,” she says, “would be standing by to wind the clock drive” which moves the telescope to follow the sky. Why? Because you’d get to watch the whole transit from the telescope dome, of course, which is so crowded I haven’t been inside. 6:00 p.m. “Annular eclipses will happen again,” someone says. “This won't.” Well, not until 2117. 6:03 p.m. “I don't think Zeb’s gonna fail me. ... He also says he’s not the hardest grader.” 6:06 p.m. “Ohmigod—diagrams!” 6:07 p.m. “This is happening again in October?” asks a visitor. RAS president Tad Komacek, a third year, sets him straight. 6:16 p.m. The flow of newcomers has diminished to a steady trickle, and as such the crowd is thinning out. There’s no need for the extra screen with the binoculars, so it’s dismantled. Now we’re just killing time until the sun goes down. We won’t get to see the whole transit from Chicago; the sun will set for us before Venus has made it all the way across. 6:30 p.m. Still transiting. Joe Cottral, AB’11, and I discuss other campus roofs—namely, the Reg and Shoreland—that we’d been on. 6:39 p.m. “I thought I saw a sign at the zoo today that said ‘log(meatball).’ I thought, ‘How is that possible?’ Then I saw the sign actually said “10 g (meatball).’” “That sounds like a Scav Hunt item.” “Yeah, ‘Graph log(meatball).’” 6:56 p.m. “Also, the Japanese don’t trust satellite data. They have people who walk around on the ground and correct their satellite data!” 7:00 p.m. I check on Venus: yep, still there, still transiting. 7:05 p.m. Only the RAS members and a few latecomers are still around. Conversation turns to other weighty matters. “I understand that for a while they made female urinals,” says Lui Pan, X’06. 7:06 p.m. “How much mass is ejected in the formation of a white dwarf?” 7:21 p.m. The crowd finally thins enough for me to make my way into the telescope dome, where fourth-year Alice Griffeth is running the show. She’s managed to get a projection of the sun the size of an extra-large pizza, big enough to see not just Venus but also a few sunspots. “We saw an airplane cross the sun a few minutes ago,” she says. 7:29 p.m. “Do you have an estimate how many people were here?” Alice asks Tad. “A lot,” he responds. “More than 100, but less than 300.” 7:39 p.m. Someone comes bounding up the stairs to the roof. “Am I too late to see Venus?” he asks with great urgency. We point him in the right direction. 7:44 p.m. “Building! Building!” calls Lui. Our view of the sun is going to be blocked by one of the hospital buildings. Barring some great advances in geriatrics, this is the last time any of us will see Venus in front of the sun. We few faithful hustle into the dome to watch the end. 7:45 p.m. A shadow devours the image of the sun. “Going, going ... gone!” says Alice. We applaud. Funny thought: we won’t survive until the next transit of Venus, but the RAS telescope might. It’s already 107 years old: what’s another century?


The Venus transit as seen in the 171 wavelength. (Video by NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory)