Transit of Venus humbles stargazers

The temperature on Mt. Wilson on Tuesday night had dropped to 48 degrees as stargazers and their entourages packed up telescopes and paraphernalia from the late-spring bacchanal celebrating the transit of Venus.

They had arrived from all over the country for the twice-in-a-lifetime event, bringing stories of observations in 2004 (the rooftop of the Hilton in Luxor, the tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran), drawn to this peak for its cloudless skies and its famed “seeing,” a shared term of appreciation for the quality of light that defines Los Angeles.

Here on Mt. Wilson, stars don’t twinkle. They glow. And, crowding a parking lot 5,700 feet above the city, a stone’s throw from the neighborhoods, freeways and civic centers below, the stargazers hadn’t come for the sake of science but instead to be connoisseurs, to admire the beauty of this rare phenomenon and its place in history. Venus, after all, passes in front of the sun only twice every 105 or 121 years.

PHOTOS: Transit of Venus

Their excitement lent a beautiful irrelevance to the day, a midsummer night’s dream of playful fancy, as they peered into eyepieces, sharing their wonder. Standing shoulder to shoulder beneath a white sun shade, some took in a projection of the transit upon a white sheet of cardboard taped to a home movie screen. Others lined up to look through a telescope with a hydrogen-alpha filter that revealed the chromosphere of the sun: the prominences, filaments, ribbons and plages that roil its surface.

Musician William Zeitler donned a ruffled-sleeve shirt and played Mozart and Tchaikovsky on his glass armonica. “Franklin played the armonica,” said Zeitler, referencing the father of electricity, “and he appreciated transits.”

A film crew maneuvered a towering jib with a camera 15 feet over the crowd. Vendors demonstrated star-gazing products. Friends and families posed for photos. Children — too small to reach the eyepieces and too young to care — ran the perimeter of the lot.

“We’re wasting photons,” said one astronomer-turned-barker, inviting passersby to peer into his telescope.

And as Venus passed across the limb of the sun, Ken Launie proposed to Sara Schechner over the eyepiece of the telescope they were sharing. Surprised and flattered by his timing, she said yes.

Most stargazers had arrived two days earlier, gathering by day for lectures in Astronomical Museum’s auditorium — on the site where 100 years ago members of the International Solar Union met, having traveled to the mountain in horse-drawn carriages — and by night huddling in the observatory with the 60-inch telescope to view binary star systems, Mars’ ice cap and the rings of Saturn, and occasionally stealing away to photograph the locker that still bears Edwin Hubble’s name.

Mt. Wilson is like this, inviting not a little parochial pride for its place in history. Beneath these pines and cedars and oaks strolled Hubble, George Ellery Hale, Albert Einstein and scores of physicists whose research enlarged the universe beyond comprehension.

The telescopes that supported their work are mostly retired now, overshadowed by more powerful instruments located in darker settings — the high plains of Chile, an orbit around Earth — but their achievements remain: the measurement of the speed of light calculated between Mt. Baldy and Mt. Wilson, the discovery that gaseous clouds thought to be inside the Milky Way are actually galaxies themselves.

It is a cliche worth repeating that stargazing is a humbling activity, and it was just as true on Tuesday as Venus, a planet slightly smaller than Earth, slid across the surface of the sun, a black dot like a pea on a plate. The sight was nothing as fast or as grand as a solar eclipse, but its diminished character did little to diminish the crowd’s enthusiasm.

An astronomical event as rare as this — only the seventh to be observed — provides a chance to stand in the sweep of history: to join Jeremiah Horrocks, who in 1639 nearly missed the transit for having to give two sermons that afternoon in church but became the first to record the phenomenon; or French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche, who in 1769 traveled to Baja California and died there not long after his observation; or David P. Todd, who in 1881 captured the transit, every two minutes, on glass plates from a peak in Northern California.

When Royal astronomer Edmund Halley challenged the world in 1716 to use the transit of Venus to calculate the distance to the sun, the expeditions he inspired — national treasuries tapped, lives lost — ultimately had less to do with making an observation and calculating a number than attempting to place the Earth in the context of the universe.

To consider the ego and the hubris, the faith and curiosity that drove these efforts is to wonder once again about the enigma of life on Earth, a question whose answer is a mystery that forever inspires us. That such efforts were worth risking lives and fortune doesn’t surprise Dava Sobel.

“People have always gone to great lengths to know more,” said the author of “Galileo’s Daughter” and “Longitude,” who traveled to Mt. Wilson from her home in New York. “To go to such lengths is to refuse that there is a limit to our knowledge.”

Toward the end of the day, the sun and Venus began to swim through the thickness of the Earth’s atmosphere. A cool breeze swept through the parking lot. Zeitler’s armonica was silent. Shadows lengthened, and telescopes — once pointing overhead — angled to the horizon.

The stargazers stood in the moment that astronomers, who centuries ago plotted future transits, only imagined, and knowing that the next transit in 2117 was out of reach, they looked ahead to a solar eclipse in November and another in 2017.

As darkness fell, John Briggs packed up his folding chairs, telescopes and stands. In a few days he would be driving home to Eagle, Colo. Neither sad nor wistful for the end of this anticipated event, he felt deeply satisfied. The viewing, he says, was wonderful. Why? His answer is simple.

“Because we’re lucky enough to have appreciated it.”

PHOTOS: Transit of Venus

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