Why I Chased the Transit of Venus across Kauai
June 5, 2012, started clear and sunny, as summer days do in Hawaii. Perfect for a day at the beach. Perfect for a sunburn, if you weren’t careful. And perfect for observing the planet Venus as it made its transit between the Earth and the sun.
For about six-and-a-half hours, a dark spot would blemish the sun, looking like a perfect circle, no more than a freckle, really. Peering through a telescope, you might even mistake the transit of Venus as possibly a mole on the very pregnant belly of a woman.
ATTRACTED TO VENUS
I headed to Lihue around noon, because the 51-year-old Kauai Museum offered proper telescopes for viewing, and, only after learning about the rare astronomical event a few days prior, I’d suddenly felt the urge to be an astronomer.
Here’s some science: The orbit of Venus is inclined to the orbit of earth but not on the same plane as the sun. When Venus passes between the sun and the earth every 1.6 years, it is usually a little below or a little above the sun. But sometimes it passes in essentially an annular eclipse of the sun. In some mathematical story problem far more complicated than I could ever compute, the transit takes place in cycles of years that look like this: 121.5, 8, 105.5 and 8 years. Oh, and the transit is not seen from every spot on earth. That’s why some people have to travel a greater distance than I to see it.
At the Kauai Museum, besides a long line for the telescope, I found an exhibit entitled, “Transit of Venus 1874.”
This wasn’t the first time the world tuned in to the planetary movements above Hawaii.
MEASURING THE SIZE OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM
Some 138 years ago, seven British scientists steamed into the Hawaiian Islands. Led by George Tupman, they packed with them “three transit instruments, including an altazimuth and half dozen telescopes, clocks and chronometers, compasses and micrometers, a photoheliograph and photographic chemicals, barometers, thermometers, hydrometers, and rain gauges plus stationary items for the volumes of recording necessary during pre and post transit day calculations and observations.”
Their objective: the very same reason I navigated my 20-year-old automobile for the island’s county seat. As well, the very same reason Captain Cook first sailed His Majesty’s Endeavor into the South Pacific, 105 years before Tupman and a whopping 243 years before I tuned in to the transit of Venus.
Both Tupman and Cook faced thousands of miles of open ocean, dangerous storms, treacherous seas and the very real threat of scurvy and death in order to time the transit. The call to astronomical action was made as far back as 1716 by astronomer Edmond Halley who had theorized that by placing observers—timekeepers—at strategic places around the globe, then another complicated math problem could be used to calculate the distances of all the planets from the sun and, thus, provide a scale of the solar system.
VENUS DRAWS A CROWD
I drove 15 miles to Lihue, and I faced a possible automobile mechanical breakdown—a very real occurrence with the “classic” that I drive—and my purpose for viewing Venus was much less heroic, much less scientific. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure why I was even making the trip. Maybe I was caught up in the excitement generated by the news media. And I discovered I wasn’t the only one.
I stood in line behind a few island visitors in their crispy, clean clothes; a posse school-age children breaking the line formation like ping pong balls; and a couple construction workers on their lunch break. When the woman in front of me bent to peer into the viewfinder, she stood up and said, “I can’t see anything. It’s black.”
We shielded our eyes with our hands and looked into the sky. A whisper of gauzy clouds as sheer as a belly dancer’s veil stretched across the sun. For a day at the beach, the clouds would have dialed down the intensity of a Kauai sun. A respite. But for the transit of Venus, the clouds meant failure.
ASTRONOMY HISTORY IN WAIMEA TOWN
On December 8, 1874, Tupman’s team, led by Richard Johnson, set up their observatory on Kauai’s west side—at 21 degrees 57’ North and 10 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds West of Greenwich—in the town of Waimea. Just about the exact same spot where Captain Cook—after his own 1769 viewing of the transit of Venus from a spot in Tahiti—returned to the Pacific and made his first landing in Hawaii, in 1778. Tupman’s team most likely tread some of the same land and footsteps as Cook and his men. Notes from Tupman’s 1874 report read, “The weather was beautiful, not the faintest cloud or mist appeared.”
Everyone in Hawaii knows that the west sides of the islands are the hottest and sunniest. The clearest. If I wanted to see Venus transit the sun, it looked like it was time for me to head west, another 22 miles. By now, though, I only had a few hours left to do so before the rare event would pass me by. That, or wait for the year 2117.
Just as I didn’t know much about the transit of Venus until a few days before, I didn’t know there was a plaque in Waimea marking the location of the 1874 observatory.
Its position, according to a poster at the museum, was “about 80 feet above the sea, and a half mile inland from the landing place. The exact site of the transit pier, in case of its removal, could be recovered from the following description: --Near the edge of the rocky cliff overhanging the Valley Road, 35 feet E.S.E. from the S. corner of the dwelling-house, a mark (arrow) has been chiseled in the rock and filled with cement. Two similar marks were cut in the rock on the edge of the cliff to the S.W., distant 90 and 346 feet respectively from the above-mentioned mark, and distance 174 and 199 feet respectively from the transit pier.”
A couple hand-written, paper signs in Waimea guided me to the general area and a friendly pastor took me to the marker’s spot. It wasn’t much. Some concrete surrounded by Kauai’s famous red dirt. A spiked metal fence. And a simple plaque. All hidden up a hill, behind a church. The pastor explained how, supposedly, the British had left part of the concrete observatory that, when aligned on a future day of transit would cast a dot of a shadow—Venus. I didn’t see the dot; he didn’t, either.
Maybe a piece of the structure was missing.
I got in another telescope line, behind more children and retired folk. But the clouds in Lihue had made their way west, too.
CAPTAIN COOK’S “DISCOVER” IN HAWAII
The pastor had generously set up a tent for shade and laid out a spread of snacks, Hawaiian Sun juice drinks and water, but the crowd gravitated toward a retired college professor who was clambering down a rock wall—pastor called it the Alii Wall—to find one of the astronomer’s arrows carved and cemented into a rock.
Waimea was once the seat of government in Kauai, and, according to the pastor, the site of Tupman's arrow was nearly the exact spot where Cook had tied up two ships—HMS Resolution and Discover.
I looked down into the valley where a community of houses sat; where when I had driven through town, I had seen the Waimea Theater advertising The Avengers coming soon; where I had noticed a line of people on benches outside Jo Jo’s Shave Ice; where a family sat at a table on the lanai of Wrangler’s Steak House. I calculated the distance to the ocean’s edge—at least a half-mile.
“Cook’s ships tied up here,” I asked, my words heavy with disbelief.
“Yes,” the pastor said.
“Here?” I asked again. I couldn’t get my head around it. I was looking down into a valley where people lived, where grass grew—where there was land, for gosh sakes.
“How?” I asked what felt like the obvious question. “There’s no water here.”
A man wearing a t-shirt promoting KEASA offered his solution. I knew KEASA stood for Kauai Educational Association for Science and Astronomy, so I would have assumed he knew something about science. “The island is still rising,” he said. I assumed wrong.
Rising? I’d heard geologist Chuck Blay speak enough to know that erosion and subsidence were actually reducing the size and height of the island.
A woman, sporting no organization logos to give her credibility—save the grey in her hair—spoke up. “Drained for irrigation,” she said. Had she grown up in the nearby sugar plantation camp?
Now, that made sense. It had happened on Oahu. That’s how Waikiki went from a swamp to a resort area.
The debate ended when our shadows re-appeared on the ground. The sun had shed a few clouds, and we queued up again for the telescope.
LESSONS FROM THE TRANSIT OF VENUS
In the end, I did see the speck Venus—no more in size than a blackened sesame seed—through the telescope’s viewfinder, and I managed a blurry photograph. As I drove home, I realized the reason I ventured half-way around the island of Kauai was not so much to witness the historic astronomical event—I still wasn’t making any plans to become an astronomer. It wasn’t that I wanted to see the world out there, but that I wanted to see Waimea back then. Both were invisible to the naked eye.
I may not have been smitten with the astronomy bug, but I am smitten with history, and I simply wanted to stand in relatively the same spot as the island’s earliest visitors and feel some sort of kinship and see the world as they did. I guess it’s the same reason people visit the USS Arizona Memorial. Or the White House. Or, as I did a couple weeks ago, the home of Daniel Boone. (Yep. Really.)