14 June 2012

STL adventures: Transit of Venus viewing in Forest Park

I’ll admit it: it’s sort of a weird time in the life of Mr. P and me. We just moved away from our home of nearly a decade (on average – Mr. P had been there eleven years, I’d been there seven, but who’s counting), we’re starting up a new life in a new city, and most bizarrely, we’re both totally unemployed. Which means that most days it doesn’t feel so much that we’ve moved, but more like... we’re on a vacation. A long one, in, like, someone else’s condo. It’s fun, but it’s odd.

There’s lots of good to come out of it, though! Because in between waiting for nesting inspiration to strike and figuring out how to buy groceries here, we are acting like we actually are on vacation, by being tourists in our new city. And I thought I’d share some of our adventures with you, okay? Okay!

One of our very first out-and-about adventures was a just a few days after arriving here. Remember the transit of Venus that everyone was buzz-buzz-buzzing about last week? I admit, for a scientist, I have an astonishing lack of interest in most things astronomical. But Mr. P was into it, and better yet, he found out that the St. Louis Science Center was sponsoring a sort of “viewing party” in Forest Park, weather permitting.

Hey, we live right by Forest Park! And the weather was forecasted to be bright and sunny! Maybe... uh, maybe we could go? Even though we really don’t know what to expect other than “it’s at the World’s Fair pavilion”? Worth a shot!

So around 6:00, Mr. P and I headed over to Forest Park and wandered around (in the wrong direction for a good while) until we found the pavilion, which is high atop a hill. As we climbed the hill, I realized there was actually a huge crowd up there:

Okay, not Lady-Gaga-concert-huge crowd, but a pretty sizable one for an event I’d only learned about earlier that day!

The website Mr. P found promised that ways to view the transit would be provided, that this wasn’t a BYOSVE party (“bring your own solar viewing equipment”, of course). And boy, they weren’t kidding. When we arrived at the top, we found that there were lots of nifty contraptions set up to allow the public to view the transit, like this... I don’t even know what it’s called:

The bright circle projected on the paper (in the shadow of the equipment) is the sun, and the little black dot on the upper left is Venus!

There were plenty of huge fancy telescopes that people could look through to see Venus, with the owners standing by to provide tips and info:

The number of children that were there sciencing thrilled me, it really did. Yay for kids seeing that science is cool!

We also had the opportunity to use more low-tech equipment, like these dudes with their homemade cardboard box viewers (DIY BYOSVE!):

Or the basic paper/cellophane glasses:

But my favorite contraption was probably this thing. Again, you can see Venus in the bright circle:

The transit looked basically the same no matter what you used to view it – dark spot on a bright circle (or, when clouds briefly interfered, what you see below). So I became fascinated with the equipment itself, as well as any little mini-lectures that the Science Center staff wanted to provide. For instance, one guy brought scale figures of the sun (pink ball) to compare to Jupiter (little rock) and Venus (tinier rock).

So yes, the transit was cool, and all the viewing equipment was even cooler, but the best part was how many amateur scientists, young and old, all gathered in this one beautiful place to view this last-time-in-our-lifetime event. The general public! Doing science together!

It was incredible. Thanks, St. Louis. I’m learning to love you already.