You probably know the basics. The transit of Venus (Venus passing across the sun, as viewed from Earth) is exciting because there won’t be another one till 2117, and because it has some pretty interesting scientific history. I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t see the last one in 2004 – I have a feeling there was something on at the place where I then worked but for some reason I didn’t go to it. So I thought I should probably try to see this one. When the listing popped up for an all-night transit of Venus event at the Glasgow Science Festival, I was quite excited (although slightly groaning at the hours).
The reason it was an all-night event was that, even if it had been clear (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it wasn’t), only the last half hour of the transit would have been visible here. I’m assuming letting a bunch of people into the uni at 5am – and the lack of public transport at that time – would have been an issue as well.
I was pretty impressed at how the event was organised. In particularly, it seemed very introvert-friendly, with a number of different rooms in use and the ability to wander off and find a quiet corner.
Martin Hendry was the MC for the night and kicked off some initial talks before moving on to try to find a feed for the start of the transit. It wasn’t entirely straightforward (Martin: ‘This is like Live Aid? Does that make me Bob Geldof?’) and the tension was built up by the projector turning off and the projection screens rolling themselves up at a crucial moment! But we got hooked into Mount Wilson (Pasadena) in time to see Venus make first contact, and watch through to the black drop effect. Seeing that made me more enthusiastic!
There were a couple of interesting exhibitions going on through the night – a ‘powers of 60’ set of space photos, the exoplanets documentaries, and Siobhan Healy’s rather marvellous space bug sculpture.
Some more talks and then the scheduled outdoor stargazing was replaced with a session in the inflatable planetarium, which is slightly wobbly and has an airlock that looks disturbingly like bright blue female genitalia. The slightly haphazard presentation was excused by it being midnight.
The 2am quiz was a mix of reasonable and completely beyond me! (Name the solar system objects from their pictures. I couldn’t tell Hyperion from a hole in the ground…)
I particularly liked the link-ups to Vancouver and Perth, Australia over skype – mostly because their weather was just as bad as ours but they still seemed to be having a good time too.
I started to struggle a little bit during the 4am physics talks but overall, staying up all night wasn’t as bad as I expected. As someone who doesn’t sleep on planes, I’ve spent too many sleepless nights in tiny seats in dark underventilated cattle class. Turns out it’s much more pleasant to stay away through the night when you have several rooms to go to, electric light and unlimited biscuits.
The weather was looking cloudy, but the decision was taken to go outside anyway. For me, this didn’t quite work, although I can see how we’d want to take any possible chance. Instead of watching feeds from elsewhere in the world on big screens in more than one room with full sound, there was one laptop which allowed maybe 10 people to see and hear what was going on. Pretty boring for the rest of us. And it rained. I did consider bailing a bit early but it seemed a shame to miss just a few minutes after being there for 9 hours.
Luckily I was staying over with relatives in Renfrew so I was safely in bed by 7am. I’d be rubbish at shift work!
So far my record for seeing interesting astronomical events is 0 from 2 (I’ll tell you about the solar eclipse some other time) but I’ll keep trying!
Thanks to Glasgow Uni and Glasgow Science Festival for kicking off the festival in such a memorable manner, even if the weather turned out to be against us.