Transit of Venus

Lots of hard work and travel have kept me away from the blog.  But!  There’s now a huge body of cool stuff to talk about.  New posts will be coming fast and furiously in the following weeks!

Let’s talk real quickly about the transit of Venus.  Aside from being a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime celestial event, it’s a huge plot point in one of my favorite books of all time, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  So … read that book?

Anaïs and I went down to the Chabot Space & Science Center to watch the transit.  Not only do they have three enormous telescopes, but the place was lousy with amateur astronomers who brought their impressive gear and were so generous as to share it with us, the great unwashed.

In the center of that photo, towards the bottom, you’ll see a suuuuuper-fancy telescope.  (I don’t care to speculate on how much it cost.)  It’s outfitted with a hydrogen-alpha filter, a narrow-band filter that blocks out most of the light coming from the sun.  It makes possible some insanely detailed images of the solar surface.  Of course, I failed entirely to get any photos of that caliber.

Something even more interesting, though, were the pinhole viewers.  I submit to you that a fancy, multi-thousand-dollar telescope rig is impressive and intimidating to the point that it turns your brain off.  Viz:

Q:  How does this complicated, expensive machine work?

A:  Technology!

Bogus.  Unsatisfying.  Worse, that dialogue is intimidating and can scare people off of asking further questions.  Of course, a sufficiently interested person (sometimes reductively called a “geek”) will bother to pick through the layers of complication until they understand how an arbitrarily complicated machine works.  This is totally great, and it can be very entertaining to watch it happen.  But I think we ought be making more geeks.  As many as possible!

So for those times, like the transit of Venus, when the public comes out in droves to do sciency things, I prefer the following gizmo:

Very simple: filter, lens, mirror, screen.  Anybody can look at this gizmo and figure out how it works.  And, because it’s so simple, the sun’s image moves fast across the page.  You end up with not just an intellectual understanding of the sun’s motion, but a visceral feeling of it as well.  People waited in line for a long time to look through the fancy telescopes, but it seemed to me that they stayed longer at the pinhole viewers and asked more questions.

I hope you got a chance to see the transit!  I hope you had lots of fun seeing it!

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