Transit of Venus

Next month, on the 6th of June, we will see what can be called, without hyperbole, a ‘once in a lifetime’ event – the transit of Venus. Once in (I think) 112 years, the path of Venus goes over the Sun, and the planet is visible as a tiny black speck against the giant Sun.

I had not even heard about the transit of Venus till about a year and a half back, and even if I had, I would not have been very excited. The reason for my present excitement is because of a remarkable book I read last year. It’s called ‘Mason & Dixon’ and it’s by that mad genius of American literature, Thomas Pynchon.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I could not finish the book; I read it halfway, and (quite perversely) my trip to America interrupted my reading. But what I did read made for a rollicking historical tale of those two characters, famous for their American Line, adventure after adventure.

Mason and Dixon meet for the first time in order to – and you must have seen this coming – observe the transit of Venus. This was back in the day, mid 1700s, when they represented the Royal Society of astronomers, and were sent off to Cape Town to observe the transit. At that time, the transit was of critical importance for a different reason. By observing the transit from different points on the Earth’s surface, it was possible to precisely synchronize clocks – and thus solve the most vexatious problem in that time, the Latitude Problem, or how to calculate the correct latitude at sea from astronomical observations. The details escape me, but the book was remarkably accurate in its scientific description.

I first heard of Mason and Dixon’s work in America when I listened to that classic song by Mark Knopfler, ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’. I was suitably impressed when I found out Knopfler had written the song after reading Pynchon’s book. Anyone who finished reading the book is certainly one notch higher than I am in the ordering of intellectual prowess.

I have fond memories of the song and the book also for another reason, which I’ll tell you all about – some other time.

So, as I wake up before Sunrise on the 6th of June, and try to find a place where I can see the transit, I will be thinking of many things, and amongst them about those two great adventurers who saw the same celestial sight three hundred years ago, the American author who wrote about them, and the British songman who composed a beautiful song after reading that book.


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