July 27, 2012 | by Krist Azizian
Why do we consider the viewing of astronomical phenomena as important, not–to–be–missed events? What difference does it make what’s happening millions of miles away from our blue planet, especially when anything that’s happening out there doesn’t impact what’s happening here in any discernible way?
On June 5, the transit of Venus across the Sun didn’t wipe out electrical grids; it didn’t cause the oceans to rise disastrously; and it surely didn’t threaten an impact with the Earth, causing mass extinction. (This latter image conjures up scenes from the recently released movie Melancholia.)
So why did I spontaneously drag my sleepy girlfriend, Alma, (not–so–fresh off a twelve-hour nursing night shift) up a hill on a Tuesday afternoon to Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, battling traffic and frantically searching for parking, to catch a glimpse of a tiny shadow on the Sun?
More than a month after the event, I still couldn’t tell you why it was so difficult to fight that sense of urgency that I had to see the transit, but once at the observatory, it became very evident that I was not alone. The entire front lawn and observation decks were packed with people — lying on blankets to view the transit (using solar eclipse glasses), waiting in long lines for a look through telescopes, and perusing among the grounds and within the observatory to glean as much information as they could get.
I, by the way (and Alma can attest to this), hate waiting in lines! But between her short naps on the blanket we’d laid out, I could see she was perplexed by my persistent disappearances into long lines — gone for some time then back again with some new information: the coelostat in the observatory is projecting a huge image of the transit; the Coronado telescope lets you see actual coronal mass ejections (CMEs) as they happen; Penny from the Los Angeles Astronomical Society has a pair of powerful binoculars fitted with hydrogen-alpha filters that give the best resolution yet! (This is when Alma shook her head and rolled her eyes). I can tell you though, my enthusiasm was contagious, and Alma was soon up and about to find all this out for herself.
Now that I try and relive the event, I can distinctly remember thinking about how I wanted to memorize the transit images and learn all I could because, after all, this would never again happen during the lifetime of anyone living today.
I also remember the strong desire to share it with Alma. How many million miles away Venus is from Earth, or how close to the Sun it was, or whether or not it has an atmosphere: These things are all now irrelevant.
In reality, I don’t remember most of the facts, and I have a hard time recalling the images, but I can readily conjure up how I felt that day — connected. Watching the transit with so many people provided a sense of perspective that is needed in a world fast collapsing in upon itself.
We are, to borrow from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, made of “star-stuff,” inextricably linked to the universe and, more importantly for our collective future, to each other. Given this perspective, if what’s happening millions of miles away from home matters so much, even when it doesn’t directly impact your life, then what’s happening at home should matter more.