Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Transit of Venus and the Birth of America

Today the planet Venus makes a rare transit across the face of the sun.  During the eighteenth century, the astronomical alignment took place twice, in 1761 and 1769, drawing observations from scientific teams all over the world, including North America.  Astronomers at that time were able to produce the first truly accurate measurements of the distance between the Earth and the sun, vastly expanding the known universe and kindling the human imagination with an understanding of Deep Space.

The Declaration of Independence, a short time later, would receive its first public reading from atop a tower constructed in Philadelphia to view the transit.  The American Philosophical Society, the scientific body Benjamin Franklin founded, which built the tower and organized the astronomical viewing under the leadership of David Rittenhouse (who constructed the telescope, quadrant, pendulum clock and other precision instruments necessary to do the siting) is located just next door to Independence Hall.  The new cosmology went hand in hand with the new political paradigm, no longer based up the heavenly mandate of a hereditary king, but upon the equal access of all to the heavenly realms and their motions. 

The Royal Astronomer of England, upon receiving a report of the American measurements, wrote that “the first approximately accurate results in the measurements of the spheres given to the world [was made] not by the schooled and salaried astronomers who watched from the magnificent observatories of Europe, but by unaided amateurs and devotees to science in the youthful province of Pennsylvania.”

What else might come out of these colonies, where men by their own wits and abilities could vie with the lords of the Old World?   Today you can watch the transit online or with protective filters—your last opportunity to see what America’s Founders saw and wonder at an event that won’t be repeated for 105 years. 


Phil Johnson said...


Did any of the Founding Fathers have any thing to say about this phenomenon?

Gary Kowalski said...

Thomas Paine included this footnote in The Age of Reason, discussing the plan of the solar system: "It should be asked, how can man know these things? I have one plain answer to give, which is, that man knows how to calculate an eclipse, and also how to calculate to a minute of time when the planet Venus in making her revolutions around the sun will come in a straight line between our earth and the sun, and will appear to us about the size of a large pea passing across the face of the sun. This happens but twice in about a hundred years, at the distance of about eight years fro each other, and has happened twice in our time, both of which were foreknown by calculation. It can also be known when they will happen again for a thousand years to come, or to any other portion of time. As, therefore, man could not be able to do these things if he did not understand the solar system, and the manner in which the revolutions of the several planets or worlds are performed, the fact of calculating an eclipse, or a transit of Venus, is a proof in point that the knowledge exists; and as to a few thousand, or even a few million miles, more or less, it makes scarcely any sensible difference in such immense distances."

Tom Van Dyke said...

The "democratic" spin is nice, and the allusion to the end of "the divine right of kings."

However, one of the more important observations was made in Tahiti by the legendary Capt. James Cook of the Royal Navy and His Majesty's Ship [HMS] Endeavour.


Nice story about Philadelphia, though.