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Tracing the Venus transit: Reflections from Hawaii

Tracey Pilch
Ron Marsh, chair of the Computer Science Department at the University of North Dakota, manages a live web stream of the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
NASA image of the June 5, 2012 transit of Venus.
NASA
NASA image of the June 5, 2012 transit of Venus.
NASA
The transit of Venus, captured in Homer.
Courtesy Tehben Dean
Michelle Scannell and her sons Stephen, 5, and Liam, 7, view the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
People enjoying Alaska's great view of the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The transit of Venus, as seen through a telescope from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Jessica Swan and her children Nathan and Caleb enjoying Alaska's great view of the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Nathan. "Or maybe twice with advances in medical science."
Loren Holmes photo
Amanda Brown came to UAA to watch the transit of Venus, and to charge her crystals. June 4, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Robert Opalinski photographing the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012. Opalinski, an amateur astronomer, flew from Alaska to Arizona in 1986 to see Halley's comet.
Loren Holmes photo
Angela Dyer and her daughter Bryana, 3, view the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Patrick Farthing, 4, views the transit of Venus from atop a parking garage at UAA. June 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

I cannot think which is hotter -- the blazing heat of Hawaii’s Big Island, Pele's temperament running like fire through the molten lava rocks, or the sight of the flaming sun during the Venus transit a week ago.

The entire view was magnificent.

What was once so elusive to astronomers for centuries is gloriously visible today. From here it's easy to weave a tapa of the transit's history. Shoreside at the northwest coast, I could not help but think of Capt. James Cook and his crew's historic 1769 voyage through these waters -- his amazing months-long journey through high seas to mark the event.

I recalled the British astronomy team that followed the next transit of 1874 on this very island. (It's marker in downtown Kailua sits on the historic Hulihe'e Palace grounds). Observers had more gear by then, more knowledge of what to expect, thanks to Cook.

Were it not for his team that paved the way for astronomers centuries later; were it not for the 1639 transit and the work of Jeremiah Horrocks; were it not for Kepler, who’s knows where we’d be today.

We are so far from their time, it's staggering.

To think of Horrocks in his quiet room, the small projected image of the transit, the first ever to be observed. Only three decades prior, Galileo designed a telescope, light-years (figuratively), from what the modern eye can see.

Our solar scopes, in fact, were so proficient during our journey here last week that the 93 million miles to the sun seemed to melt the distance that filled my eyes with flares, prominences, and the glaring scarlet glow of our nearest star.

To see our sister planet move across the sun’s brilliant face was magnificent, both in scale and the rarity of the phenomenon. As all four contacts made themselves known, the space in between lingered like the steady breeze through the heat. I looked at the sea. The rich black lava rocks. The occasional white-tipped bird. The vastness of space, where the horizon line between water and sky dissolved into oneness. Again, I thought of the early navigators. The early ways in which we tried to make sense of our turning world, our infinite universe. How far we've come and not at all.

How much we've learned and how much we’ve yet to know. How small we seem, a grain of blowing sand in the vastness of things. Again, I remembered the ancient Polynesians and the way they charted to sea with stars.

There isn't a time I come to Hawaii that I do not remember them. The more I grow, the more I appreciate them -- their courage on open water, their unique astronomy. In my whole life I will never know what it is they knew.

Galileo and those like him may have felt that same way, looking upward, looking backward, looking forward, the way one does in the realm of things, piecing the interconnectedness of our history with our future.

The stars are a lonely lot like we. As the sun began to slowly sink that remarkable day of the transit, I felt something sink in me, too. The knowledge that Venus had concluded its spectacular path left me saddened. Knowing this fantastic alignment in nature had ended and would not touch us again until 2117 was like a black drop in my heart speckled against a million grains of wonderment.

I drank a piña colada as I watched it go, a flood of scarlet bewilderment in my vortex and the memory of distant ghosts on an open ocean who needed the sky as much as we.

Tracey Pilch is an artist and amateur astronomer. She is an adjunct professor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.