The 2004 Transit
of Venus
(the World's second-worse "eclipse")

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leafAs Rare As Can Be
(if not visually that exciting...)
Solar Eclipses must seem commonplace, and "ordinary" to those who (for some inexplicable reason) crave viewing the passage of our near-sister planet, Venus, passing between the Sun's Disk and the Earth. These occur not every year or two, as do total solar eclipses, but less than once (or more often a pair) every 125+ years! There wasn't a single instance in the 20th Century (the two closest being in 1882 and 2004).
A Venus Transit "in Fifteen Steps"

So WHY call this the "second-worst eclipse" of the Sun? I'm being a little flip in the characterization. Call it irony. But the distinction has meaning to any dedicated eclipse chaser, who realizes that anything less that a total solar eclipse misses nearly every spectacular feature of these gorgeous natural events. An annular eclipse, when the moon is merely a bit too far away for its shadow to reach Earth's surface, is such a case. The moon then appears too small to cover the solar disk, and as a result you miss seeing: Bailey's Beads, solar flares and prominences, the chromosphere, the diamond ring effect, and most beautiful and astonishing to see, the solar corona. The motion of a dark disk over the Sun, while quite interesting (and unusual), is not normally even visible without special dense filters. And the average person standing there as the occultation takes place overhead will not be aware that anything out of the ordinary is happening.
You have to know about these events (or just be lucky), and be prepared to witness one. With a total solar eclipse in progress overhead there is little doubt, as midday turns into deep twilight. If you then have a clear sky and simply look upwards, you'll see what all the excitement is about, you really can't miss it. But anything less than a complete coverage of the Sun's disk is surprisingly non-obvious. And the smaller the coverage, the harder it becomes to detect at all.
Venus is always a small object in the Earth's skies, even the several weeks a year it presents us with the largest planetary disk of our Solar System as seen from Earth, when Venus is closest to us. (Fortunately during the rare Transits this IS the case!) In physical size, Venus is a near-twin to Earth. But its closer orbit to the Sun has created a very hot, hostile environment, with dense 100% cloud cover, and lethal conditions for life's chemistry. The innermost planet, Mercury, is much smaller. And being even further away from the Earth even at the closest, Transits of Mercury deserve the description of: The Worst "Eclipse." Due to the details of planetary motion, Transits of Mercury take place on average fourteen times each century. So your chances are pretty good, with some planning ahead, that you can experience a few in your lifetime. But to see a Transit of Venus you have to be especially lucky. Consider this short list of a dozen past and future events:

1518 (May 26th)
1526 (May 23rd)
1631 (Dec 7th)
1639 (Dec 4th)
1761 (Jun 6th)
1769 (Jun 3rd)

1874 (Dec 9th)
1882 (Dec 6th)
2004 (Jun 8th)
2012 (Jun 6th)
2117 (Dec 11th)
2125 (Dec 8th)

You can pick out a pattern or two ongoing here, like the alternation of summer and winter instances, and the eight year separation between each pair of transits. Over a longer period the pattern slowly changes, and for a range of several centuries not even both members of each pair will be visible from the surface of the Earth. Those unfortunate people then can witness only half the usual rate of two approximately every 130 years. We can't go into the geometry, mechanics and mathematics behind transits in this short report. I recommend the excellent short book by Eli Maor:  "June 8, 2004 -- Venus in Transit", for a highly readable description of these infrequent occurrences.

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leaf2004 -- Venus From Italy

Scene of the Crime -- Siena Piazza, Italy
(Click for a large panoramic version)

Here's a charming panorama of the place from which I viewed the June 8, 2004 Venus Transit, the bowl-shaped central piazza of a gem of a compact city: Siena, Italy. Twice a year the plaza is the scene of horse races around its periphery, which I'm told is something wild to behold. A large crowd of people attend these events each year. You won't see any mass of humanity in above photo, taken shortly after the Venus Transit had begun. In fact, it was a rather humdrum early morning, shops and restaurants had barely begun to open, and you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone even glancing upwards. With our small setup of equipment in front of the buildings to the right of this image, my friend and I were the only Transit observers there that morning. Unlike the usual curious reactions we inevitably get from setting up telescopes and cameras on a sidewalk someplace, the Italians seemed too polite to notice. No one at all asked what we were doing; and sadly, no one even asked for a look. Odd and dour -- a highly rare astronomical event takes place under ideal conditions in a beautiful spot, and no one cares or is even aware of it (and I thought I was blasé...!).

Piccolo Street, Siena  --  A Compact Viewing Setup
(click either for a large view)

I took the left image above just as we arrived on (aptly named) Piccolo Street, the teensy street where our hotel was located. That archway at left center leads immediately to the grand Piazza seen in the panorama above. It was a very brief walk to carry the equipment from the hotel into the square, which made setting up for the Transit easy and hassle-free. We had checked the angles and discovered that at the time the Transit began anyone located on the western side of the Plaza should be able to see the Sun easily. So that's where we chose (in front of a restaurant yet closed at 7 AM), and took many 1st and 2nd contact images, and also some video of the leisurely progressing Transit. The whole thing lasted around six hours, so there was ample time to relocate a couple of times, yet "not miss anything." The charming Piccolo Hotel has a dining area on the second floor, with two diminutive balconies overlooking nearly as narrow streets to either side. One of those balconies was directly in the sunlight by midmorning, and that's where we setup to capture the mid-transit images, and also to show the very helpful and friendly hotel manager (that's her in pink walking towards us in the earlier street photo) a clear, large view of mid Transit. "Ah, Venera!" she exclaimed, with delighted surprise.
This was a very stripped-down rig compared to what I've used for most eclipses. But since this was my first time in Italy (so -- what kept you?!), there was more to carry than just for the Venus Transit. Actually, the small assembly worked very well. It had a 1200 mm focal length, through a safe metalized solar filter, feeding my dependable old Topcon camera with it's unusually large and bright right-angle viewfinder image. It was important not just to be able to take good photos, but also to see more than a small scope or binoculars would allow (although I brought binocs, too), and this custom setup was ideal. The top of the tripod holds one of those center-of-mass pivoting Wemberly tripod mounts, the same device seen in a photo of the equipment at the hotel in Lusaka, Zambia for the June 2001 total eclipse. Here it meant that no friction was needed while aiming, you could just feather touch the front of the lens to re-center, whatever the angles. Very convenient, especially when the Sun was nearly overhead. There's a homemade "gnomon sun-shadow" aiming device mounted on the right of the camera, very handy to locate the sun quickly.

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leafTransit Images

Okay, here are some of the images from the Transit (posted here EXACTLY ONE YEAR since the Transit -- shame on me!). The most interesting parts visually (through a small telescope) were the slow ingress and egress sequences, although most people also wanted to observe Venus at the maximum transit, when it was furthest from the solar limb. Still, after reading though the few reports of previous Transits, a lot of attention was focussed on was what's called the "teardrop effect." This is an optical aberration in both telescopes and the human eye, exacerbated by Earth's atmosphere (possibly even slightly by Venus's atmosphere, too), which "blurs" the actual moment when the two disk edges are in exact alignment. Instead of what you'd expect geometrically: a nice, crisp and ultra-brief moment when the edges exactly line up, and then move apart, the "teardrop" smears out the precise moment in a black liquid-like stretching of the overlapping portions which fills-in and obscures the exact edges of both disks. It was the bane of professional observers in the past, who sought to compute from their measurements, an accurate distance from the Sun to the Earth.
First contact in Siena happened right on time by an accurate digital watch, using the telescope to view the expected location on the rising Sun's disk. It felt both unnerving and exhilarating to be among those fortunate to witness Venus's shape insinuating itself onto the solar disk. That hadn't happened since December of 1882, so long ago that no one who saw the event is alive today. I felt a thrill to be alive and able to view so easily this latest instant of something that has been seen by so few of our species. That's rather humbling, actually. The thought counted more than what was seen. To the eyes there was a small intrusion upon the edge of the Sun, which distinctly grew in size until there could be no doubt that this was any illusion or hallucination.
For several minutes I had the impression that it was not a disk shape, but something more like the outline of a fingertip -- longish, with a rounded leading edge. But after more minutes it became clear that it was, indeed, a perfectly round shape that was taking a very small bite out of the Sun. The motion was much slower than the progress of the Moon's disk over the Sun at solar eclipses. Small and slow, nothing at all dramatic to see. You'd never notice unless it was carefully pointed out to you, or you were expecting it. Mercury Transits (the "worst" solar "eclipse" of all) are even less impressive, but progress somewhat faster, as that tiny planet orbits the Sun closely and thus comparatively swiftly (88 days). It's also harder to see, even with binoculars, whereas Venus is a sharp-edged disk, clearly different in appearance from even large sunspots, which are usually "lumpy" and complexly shaped.
Second Contact approached, when Venus's utterly black disk would be completely contained by the Sun. I strained to see signs of the "teardrop" effect. Instead I was mildly astonished to watch only the briefest of moments when the dark circle stretched slightly out of shape, but never fully into the classic "teardrop" shape reported and photographed in the 19th Century. Reports from other observers from that day proved my impressions were hardly unique. Apparently the quality of modern optics has progressed enough to overcome most of the factors behind this aberration so commented upon in past transits. Professional images with larger optics showed nary a touch of the effect. Lowell's infamous "Canals of Mars" comes to mind -- what modern observer sees canals on that planet these days? Once Venus was safely on top of the Sun's disk, it seemed to crawl ever more slowly. And so after a half hour more, we "got the general idea", and decided to break down the gear and find some breakfast.

Five Views of Transit (click)

Just above is a sequence of five moments of the Transit, two near Second Contact, one at the midpoint of Transit, and two near Third Contact. The very start and very end contacts, First and Fourth, are not so interesting, more of a tiny dark "bump" along the edge of the solar disk. The photos, even at modest web resolutions, indicate the vagueness of any "teardrop" effect I described above, and match my visual impressions very well. I won't forget the large telescopic views near mid-Transit: Venus was so sharp and round and "foreign" to the familiar features of our nearest star. For such a small camera and tele lens, the image was surprisingly sharp, although it would have been amusing, if less practical, to have something even larger on the trip (there are many larger and high quality images available online, with a bit of "Googling"). Next let's look at the three most interesting images, also chosen as among the sharpest on the film negative frames, for 2nd contact, mid-transit, and 3rd contact:

Second Contact (left) -- Mid-Transit (center) -- Third Contact (right) (click each)

While I was definitely "hyped" to witness such a rare astronomical phenomenon, the rest of the trip was most enjoyable, and (to be frank) just as memorable. Up until now, my travels had taken me to some rather unusual places around the Globe. But most of Europe had somehow been excluded. I've always wanted to see Italy. No student of music and the arts can resist the allure of masterpieces of every kind to be found there, and the unique countryside, the Italian people, the food. Conditions predicted for observing the Transit in early June from Italy were also very favorable -- so Italy it was. Since this was my first time, as I've said, there was too much to see!
In ten day I could visit only a fraction of everything I wanted to. It was especially painful to give up Venice. But a simple driving route from Milano down through Tuscany and Umbria, ending up in Rome, looked practical and enticing. It was one of my most enjoyable travel experiences -- I can't wait to go back! Many of you will know the feelings, especially those who really do know Italy well. The industrial north around Milan was efficient and bustling, Milan itself is cosmopolitan and colorful, a shopper's dream. La Scala Opera House could only be seen from outside, as it was undergoing the last of its extensive refurbishment, alas.
Parma did not disappoint, and one of its culinary epitomes, "Prosciutto di Parma", puts every other variation to shame. Firenze could occupy me for weeks, but I took in the main attractions over a long weekend, feeling more like a tourist on an "if this is Tuesday" kind of crash visit. Yes, I did see the famous tower at Pisa, thinking back to Galileo's impudent stunt from the top. Volterra seemed magical, a small city perched up on its own mountaintop. Siena is a storybook, compact world, maddeningly confusing with its warren of ultra-narrow streets to a first time visitor with no map. I must get back there with more time, as well, and was grateful to observe the first half of the Venus Transit from its historic, unforgettable Central Piazza. And finally there was Roma.
No city person ought feel out of place in Rome. It's big and friendly and quite easy to get around in. As with most of Italy, you'd be hard pressed to find a poor meal (the regional differences are also notable). I was taken off-guard by the Sistine Chapel ceiling, despite all I'd read, all the photos I'd seen. That Michaelangelo could create such vivid (especially so since the cleaning) imagery, while hanging from wooden scaffoldings for several years, no longer a young man, still amazes me. Reading about a masterwork is "theoretical", much like reading about an eclipse. You have to see it with your own eyes. I was overcome with emotions, choked up to be there at long last. Seeing the tombs of Respighi and Rossini in Firenze was emotional, too. One is humbled in the presence of greatness. And as you grow older and more aware how brief and cluttered our days are, achievment of any kind seems more and more remarkable. Anyway, my first evening in Rome included the famous (too famous) Spanish Steps -- nowadays it's often "mobbed" like Times Square, alas! From the very top you can easily pick out the dome of St. Peters in the not so far distance.

Magic Hour in Rome (click)

Since this is not a travel journal webpage, I won't fill it with snapshot photos and further descriptions by yet another dopey American tourist ooh-ing and aah-ing the best places to see while "on holiday." But the longish exposure just above, taken from the top of the Spanish Steps during what photographers call the "magic hour" is a nice way to end this brief report. The weather cooperated throughout the trip, and you can tell see this was the end of another beautiful day. Anyway, since most photos of the Steps are taken from lower down and facing them, I kind of like the idea of showing a less cliched view.

-Wendy Carlos, New York City -- June 8, 2005

© 2005 Wendy Carlos - All Rights Reserved

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leafSome Italy Travel Pix

Yas, quite right, I'm making a liar of myself by adding this final section, as told you right above (if two years ago) that this page wouldn't degenerate into a collection of tourist snapshots. Oh, well... nine more pix in the spirit of "Magic Hour in Rome" isn't too presumptuous, is it? (If your answer is "yes", just hit the Back button to say "Arrivederci.") When I first created this section on the 2004 Venus Transit as I viewed it from Italy, I'd not examined my collection of travel photos more than superficially. Seen a few years later, there are a few which might round out this webpage, with descriptions. If you're already an expert on Italy, just skip this section, now that you've seen the truly rare Transit photographs above.

La Scalla, Milano (click)

My first time in Milano, there was no way I wanted to leave without seeing the famous cathedral to music, La Scalla. I've also a few singer friends who insisted I must bring back a few photos of the opera house. As luck would have it, the hotel I was in turned out to be very close by La Scala, and before heading to dinner where we had reservations, my friend and I stopped by to see the building. No, we couldn't attend a concert, or even get inside, as the extensive rebuilding work was still in progress, alas. But from the exterior there wasn't too much to block seeing the entrance side of the building. The light was poor as it was nearly sunset, but that didn't dampen the thrill to see it.

Firenze: Hotel Courtyard -- Hotel Room View of Duomo -- Ponte Vecchio Bridge (click each)

Firenze, or Florence, remains one of the jewels of Italy, from Brunelleschi's magnificent dome on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, to the Piazzas and fabled museums containing many of the world's greatest Renaissance masterpieces. With luck the modest hotel turned out to be very near the cathedral, and everything was within easy walking distance. Florentine food represents the height of Tuscany's culinary artistry, which is only appropriate when surrounded by such architectural, sculptured and painted artistry. I took the first photo above shortly after checking into the room, as I found the courtyard just below our topfloor room to be charming and practical (NYC could use such convenient, non-street blocking parking nooks). But then cast your eyes upwards and you had this splendid view of the "Duomo", and might hear the Cathedral's Campanile bells mark the daytime hours.
A thunderstorm passed through during the middle of the first night, which woke me, so that I was gazing out the window as several lightning bursts sissored the night sky spectacularly, all around the Duomo and Campanile. The second day remained partially showery, which rendered some of my photos, like this third shot of the well-known Ponte Vecchio Bridge, photogenically moody. Many of the museums forbid cameras, but that's okay, the photos I took elsewhere remind me of the experience very well. As for the major art pieces, including the astonishing (and immense) "David" sculptured by Michaelangelo, those are better captured by professionals with the equipment, time and proper lighting. This is a wonderful city, I was sorry to leave.

Non-Leaning Pisa Tower (click)

Every shot of Pisa's famed tower I've seen shows off the tilt, you know, the whole  l-e-a-n-i-n-g  part. From two sides that IS what you see, and also from a pretty wide area. You might pose near a camera (over to the left, at the Pisa Basilica, is the usual spot), arms stretched upwards in front of you, carefully framing the shot to look like you're supporting the structure from its inevitable toppling over. Well, with the major engineering measures recently in place, the toppling of this famous structure is now probably postponed for a long while, if not indefinitely (you can see some of the weights and braces surrounding the base). I thought it was more interesting to find the two exact side locations from which the tilt became hard to notice, either toward or away from your POV. The better side was this one, from the east of the tower. There's no PhotoShop trickery about it, this is simply a good cover photo for an upcoming book: "Pisa Exposé -- The Untold, Unleaning Story of a Famous Tower!" Yeah, right.

Approaching Volterra (click)

Since this was my first time in Italy, there were a great many happy surprises to experience. On the drive from Pisa to Siena, which on the map seemed a perfectly plain series of connections, I had overlooked that the road passing through the city of Volterra was drawn with multiple twisting turns. It all made sense once we neared the spot, for Volterra actually lies on the top of a mountain, and those curves depict the hairpins to navigate up and back down some fairly steep terrain. The day was partially cloudy, which only enhanced our dramatic first view of this once fortified small city. It resembled an illustration from a children's picturebook adventure story, a formidable, expansive castle on the hill, surrounded by red tile roofed homes, everything floating cinematically above the road. Driving up and through the city was spectacular and beautiful, while several photos I took from the car while approaching Volterra probably capture the visual "magic" of the place best.

Roman Forum from Coliseum (click)

And the photo above is a simple two-photo stitched panorama of the Roman Forum as seen from a second tier platform of the Coliseum, looking Northwest. From our somewhat elevated position your can pick out the main walkway of the Forum running away from us to the left, and to the right view the Basilica Constantine and other well preserved remains of ancillary buildings, high up on the Palatine Hill just in front of us. The weather was near perfect, and in late Spring, well before the larger crowds of Summer, sightseeing the ruins was quite manageable. I've seen these places in photos and films for so many years, then studied maps of Rome before coming here, but as always is the case, the reality was a whole other experience, often electrifying. It's too bad it took me so many years to see some of Italy's cities and breathtaking countryside, and I'd go back there in an instant (pardon if I gush).

Interior St. Peter's Dome (click)

Of course the main attraction of Michaelangelo's magnificent Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican is its justly famed architecture. But I'm a fan of domed buildings, in particular, and always want to see how the interior is treated. This one certainly did not disappoint. A slow shutter captured the visual effect nicely, which some hand burning and dodging in PhotoShop has enhanced here. The vast interior of the Basilica that mid morning was mostly unlighted, so the illumination that flowed through the many stained-glass windows caught one's eye dramatically. Most photos I've seen have the interior brightly lighted, but I rather like this darker image, too. I was also pleased to reacquaint myself with The Pieta in its proper home surroundings (despite the security double glass/lexan panels), having seen it long ago at the Vatican Pavilion in the New York World's Fair of 1964-65. But nothing quite prepared me for viewing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It caught me like a bolt of lighting, and I found myself overcome emotionally, silently wandering around beneath the astonishing, and lovingly restored masterpiece. I floated the rest of that day...

Wendy at Trevi Fountain (click)

Alright, let's embrace pure silliness, and end this section with a touch of unabashed tourist cliché. I was charmed to end a long meandering day of great art and architecture by visiting the famous Roman Fountain. Ottorino Respighi composed one of his "Fountains of Rome" movements for this rightly famous spot. The early June evening was balmy (as was I -- but I digress...), the crowd was cheery, the languidly moving laser spotlights above the fountain lent a touch of new/old "frisson" to the classic sculpture, and after another wonderful Italian dinner it felt great to be alive. So I asked my friend to capture this satisfied "cat who ate the canary" smile as I perched in front, posed above the bubbling waters. Then it was a pleasant walk to the efficient (and modest to a Manhattanite) Roman subway for a quick jump back to the hotel, the end of what honestly could be called: "another magical day!"

-Wendy Carlos -- November 2006+

© 2008 Wendy Carlos - No images, text, graphics or design
may be reproduced without permission. All Rights Reserved.

On viewing the photos: These images will not necessarily look correct unless displayed on a color monitor with at least 16-bit color. Images of the sun's corona are particularly difficult to reproduce without 24-bit color, although you ought get the general effect of the image in 16-bit mode. We're sorry, if there were an easy way around this, we'd all be millionaires!

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Wendy Carlos Venus Transit 04