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Transit of Venus was a once-in-a-lifetime show for many

June 6, 2012 |  5:36 am

Transit-smallThe Transit of Venus was a once-in-a-lifetime show for many who looked to the skies Tuesday.

"It's like watching grass grow," said 93-year-old Don Nicholson, describing Venus' 6-hour, 40-minute progression, most of which was visible locally before sunset. "But if you were told that grass only grows every 100 years, you'd probably want to watch it."

Nicholson has been coming to Mt. Wilson to view the sky since he was a child. His father, S.B. Nicholson, an astrophysicist working at the Mt. Wilson observatory, discovered four of Jupiter’s moons.

California and the U.S. Southwest was presented with spectacularly clear skies, offering the first chance to see Venus moving in front of the sun for the first time since 1882. The West Coast didn't see the last transit in 2004, which was timed before sunrise.


The excitement over the transit -- which won't occur again for 105 years -- was not lost among those who watched the spectacle, from the young to the elderly. 

At the Leisure World retirement community in Seal Beach, Emily Hoshiko, 90, sat on her walker with a floral umbrella and with a dozen others quietly watched a projection screen showing a small black dot inching its way across a splash of light

“I think it’s amazing you can get a glimpse of something like this,” she said. “I’m not going to be here another 100 years.”

Crowds showed up at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where astronomers set up telescopes to see the magnified sun. Gushed Chris Spellman, 40, of Monrovia: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event .... I'm pretty lucky to be alive right now."

At Mt. Wilson above the San Gabriel Valley, astronomers gathered beneath a blue sky with only occasional wisps of clouds breezing by to celebrate the historic transit. Anchoring their telescopes in the parking lot not far from the mountain communication and broadcast towers, visitors from Southern California and from around the country greeted the phenomena with a sense of wonder.
At 3:06 p.m., the edge of the sun began to be obscured by the planet. “I see it” and “I think I see it” were heard from observers peering through a large variety of telescopes, including one that is 15-feet long. Manufactured in 1868, it was set up horizontally with mirrors channeling the light onto a projection that drew a crowd of onlookers.
Its owner, John Briggs, past president of the Antique Telescope Society, drove from Eagle, Colo., to view the event. He brought about five telescopes with him and described the appeal of watching the transit.
“In the same way that a bird watcher might want to go to some effort to see a rare migration,” he said, “for someone interested in astronomy, the transit of Venus is a wonderful opportunity.”
Briggs was drawn to the event for its historical significance. “Astronomers of yesteryear put heroic effort to measuring this phenomena,” he said, referring to attempts to use the transit as a means to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun. “We don’t need to go to those lengths today, but it is still humbling to see the phenomena now and think how hard people worked to view it.”
The transitOnce the planet was surrounded by the sun, descriptions ranged from a pea resting on a platter to the most accurate calculation of approximately one-tenth of 1% of the surface of the sun. But the diminished character of the event did nothing to diminish the crowd’s enthusiasm. Members from the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and Orange County Astronomers chose Mt. Wilson, located a mile above the city, for its viewing potential.
Copernican scholar Owen Gingerich of Harvard University was among the viewers. Having witnessed the 2004 transit from Palermo, Italy, he had considered watching this event in Hawaii but decided upon Mt. Wilson. He was most interested in watching the Black Drop effect, in which Venus seems to elongate for a few minutes against the edge of the sun. It was this phenomenon that frustrated scientists in the 17th and 18th century attempting to determine the exact months when the transit began.

“As a scientist, I realized that there was no scientific importance in what we’d be seeing up here,” he said. “But as a historian, I could understand better what the Black Drop effect was all about. Those five minutes are why I was here.”

--Tom Curwen, Rong-Gong Lin II and Rick Rojas