This evening, Venus will slide into alignment between the orbits of the Earth and the Sun. To those watching from our planet, the transit of Venus will look like a small, dark disk, sliding across the sun. This will not happen again until the year 2117, when we will all be dead.
The New York Times called the impending Venus-transit "a last chance opportunity." The Wall Street Journal called it "a last chance glimpse." The Los Angeles Times said the event has "skywatchers abuzz, charged with a do-or-die feeling that this is something they absolutely need to see and study." The Washington Post said that after witnessing the transit of Venus we will "sink into history's pages" for 105 years, until she transits again.
We get it. This is a very big deal for anyone who studies the heavens. Rebecca Rosen has a great story over at TheAtlantic.com about British navigator Captain James Cook's race to observe the 1769 edition. But what about the rest of us? I think we're supposed to feel excited, or anxious that some unforeseeable event will make us miss tonight's celestial moment. But what happens if we do miss it? What happens if we get stuck at work or in an elevator or we throw our backs out during morning sex or rainclouds obstruct the sky? Will a divide form between us and the people who do see it, as if they have some kind of deeper connection (like hanging out with people who once took LSD together on a beautiful mountain when you've never tried LSD or climbed a mountain)?
Is an event necessarily important or awesome because you only have one last chance to experience it?
We don't know.
What we do know is that we would be psyched if we were astronomers who were paid to travel to the Pacific tropics to use a special telescope. Venus' little dance has funded excursions across the globe for explorers and astrologists and mathematicians since the 1700s. Grants from King George II sent Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon sailing from England towards (what is now) Indonesia to observe the 1761 transit of Venus. Admittedly, their trip was not entirely luxurious. A battle with a French ship killed 11 members of their crew and damaged their ship. But they fixed their ship in Plymouth, and perhaps stretched out their time in the colonies with a little sightseeing before they set sail again. They measured Venus' transit near the Cape of Good Hope, still on the King's dime.
The King simultaneously sent Reverend Nevil Maskelyne sailing to measure the transit. He racked up a liquor bill higher than the cost of his trip and did not see the event due to "cloudy skies." He later became the Astronomer Royal of England, a high-ranking position as a member of the Royal Household, because the world's not fair.
In the centuries that followed, more and more people got to travel when Venus did her thing. The invention of the camera created a demand for Venus-transit-photographers. The invention of airplanes removed the barrier of possibly running into pirates. This time around, extra-special telescopes are scattered across the globe, in perfect workcation spots like Hawaii.
Pesonally, if I was paid to go to Hawaii, I would be so into Venus' movements right now. Instead, I feel pretty ambivalent. I will likely weigh the value of watching the black dot of Venus with the value of an evening nap. Does this make me a bad person? Are you excited to watch the transition? Let me know in the comments.