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June 27, 2022

Venus, Goddess of Love

By Michael G. Mears

In the long history of humanity, I'm sure that only a relatively scant few people have ever seen the planet Venus in full daylight. Perhaps some ancient hunter with exceptional eyesight, scanning the sky for weather hints or maybe a flock of birds to stalk, saw an unrecognizable glow and wondered what it was and why it wasn't moving.

In later ages, other, more modern folk, might have seen it and assumed it was supernatural, maybe angelic or demonic in origin.

In still more contemporary times, naked-eye astronomers would have been well aware of the identity of the brightest morning/evening "star". But all these keen-eyed observers would agree, I think, with my experience that it is a remarkably difficult target to locate and one that is depressingly easy to lose in a featureless blue sky.

I was interested in astronomy from the time I was a kid. In fact, I remember seeing what I believe was either the Soviet satellite Sputnik or the first US satellite, Explorer I, after finding viewing instructions in the newspaper. In either case, I would have been seven years old.

But what kid isn't interested in the Universe, or in dinosaurs, or in the microscopic things that swim in pond water?

I think I recall owning a small, toy plastic microscope when I was young, but remember vividly my first telescope. It was small and had a tabletop tripod. This turned out to be less than practical since taking a table outside at night wasn't convenient. It could have been set up on a car hood, of course, but we had no car.

I didn't get much use out of this telescope, but I still had it in 1971 when Comet Kahoutek was approaching. I didn't see it.

In 1975, my interest in Astronomy was rekindled by, of all things, a newfound interest in science fiction stories. I bought a nice pocket atlas to look up constellations and individual stars and was surprised to find that many of the places I'd read about weren't made-up after all. I found Regulus in Leo, Sirius in Canis Major (brightest star visible from earth), and Betelgeuse in Orion (long before the movie of comparable name.) And many, many more.

I was very lucky to be viewing when I was, because I noticed soon that a star in the Constellation of Cygnus the Swan didn't seem to appear on the chart in my new book. It turned out to be a nova, a "new star" (so named not because it really was new but because it had not been observed before at that brightness level.) Nova Cygni 1975 was very exciting.

After this, or perhaps during the flare-up of the nova, I found an astrophysics text in a book catalog ("Astronomy and Cosmology, A Modern Course" by Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, 1975).

With this volume, I finally began to learn the reality of the Universe around me.

Though I don't remember ever thinking of the world in strictly magical terms, I'm sure I must have when I was very small. What I found in this book was an unbelievably immense gravitational ballet, lit by electromagnetism born in the hearts of stars, warmed by thermonuclear fires of unimaginable energies.

I learned theories of star formation, how galaxies become what they are and where planets were thought to originate.

To quote Albert Einstein, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible."

My love for astronomy grew. I bought a better telescope, one with a full-sized tripod and spent every clear night outside. I bought expensive long underwear for the winter and drank a lot of hot coffee. I remember nights so cold that the warmth of my eye would steam-up the eyepiece and I had to wait till the fog cleared.

I could now see things like the rings of Saturn and the four largest moons of Jupiter. I tracked an asteroid once and still have the star chart I drew at the time. There was so much to see.

I couldn't understand at the time how anybody could be disinterested. I even said once, "I mean, it's the * blanking * Universe out there!"

This adventure was more than half my lifetime ago and my enthusiasm for sitting outside in freezing weather has waned considerably. In addition to which, my eyesight isn't what it once was and hot coffee just makes me have to go inside and ruin my night vision far too often.

Still, I enjoy my limited understanding of the workings of the world though I spend far more time watching astronomy programs on TV than I do with my eye fogging-up an eyepiece.

Nothing quite compares, however, to that morning in the mid 1970s when I'd stayed up all night waiting for the opportunity to track Venus as it rose in the East. I moved my telescope incrementally as it climbed the sky and all the background stars slowly disappeared. I looked at it often with binoculars hoping not to lose it and marveled at how much it appeared to be a wingless aircraft, all silver in the morning light.

But, as I recall it, in my telescope I could see that it wasn't a plane but appeared to be a minuscule version of earth's moon. I don't recall what phase it was in having seen it so many times since, but I understood that it might display other than a "full Venus" and it did.

I watched it for as long as I could, high in a clear blue sky. Then I glanced away one too many times and it was gone. I tried with the binoculars and with the telescope again to relocate it and finally had to give up.

I folded the tripod and went in for breakfast.

Article © Michael G. Mears. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-06-09
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