Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Transits & Transitions

There are times when the Vagabond Astronomer is perhaps a bit too random. The 8th of November, 2006 is a good example.
What set this day apart from other days is the fact that on 8 November 2006, the planet Mercury made a transit across the Sun's disk. I had plenty of advance warning; astronomy is a science of numbers and very advance planning, and this transit has been known about for many, many years. At least I did help a few friends brainstorm and plan sessions. I decided to do mine pretty much last minute. However, typically me, I decided to use this wonderful event as an educational opportunity for a group of students from Christ the King School here in Jacksonville. It's not every day that you have an opportunity to not only talk about the vast distances between planets but their motions as well, and this transit was perfect for that.

You see, there's a lot more to teaching children astronomy than just science. Astronomy is a subject that teaches about our place, not only here on Earth, but where we are in the universe. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the numbers, and in astronomy there are some huge numbers. The numbers are just numbers, and there are ways to talk about the vast distances that are far easier than throwing out "millions and millions". For me, it's the use of models that helps. If you can show a child that if the Sun were 142 mm in diameter then the Earth is about 1.3 mm, a mustard seed, they have a pretty good idea that our Sun, a star, completely dwarfs its planets. You give the model to a child, and they become that object. In this illustration, Breanna serves as the Sun......while Madeline is Mercury, Rachel is Venus and wee little Marian is Earth.
The scale that was used is the same as that used for my "The Solar System In Scale" model, but since we were only talking about the inner three planets, we didn't need to cover a lot of ground (though the parking lot we were in would have easily allowed a good chunk of the Solar System... and there are plenty of temptations there for the future!). Once they could see what the distances were like, I went on to explain that the planets do not orbit in the same plane, that indeed each has its own orbital tilt or inclination. With that explained, and by demonstrating how little of the sky the Sun actually takes up, they could see how few degrees makes a big difference when it comes to the alignment necessary for transits to be visible at all.
After the demonstration came the actual viewing session. I chose "Benjamin", my Apogee Widestar 80mm refractor (one that Rachel instantly fell in love with and hovered near for the remainder of their visit).

Again, they were amazed... little Mercury was just a speck against the disk of the Sun, though a clearly circular one. I tried to take an afocal ("through the eyepiece") image of the transit, but this was the best I could do (Incidentally, this method worked well with my images of the Moon, but not for this transit).

Mercury is indicated by the arrow. As you can see, it is just a mere speck.
The astronomy and science aside, there is something important here and I am just glossing over it. The window of opportunity to teach anything to young people is very narrow. To help them grow and develop a true appreciation for the world and the universe around them, you have to encourage them when they are young. Youth is a transitional period in life, and like a planet passing over the disk of the Sun, it can be both a rare and wonderful thing. If we can encourage and inspire them during this phase of life, they grow and learn and perhaps one day will set out to inspire others as well, if only through their example. Get them to look around now, and they will forever find wonder in Creation.

...A Time To Return

That is to say... I'm back home in Jacksonville. Pretty much all I needed to say here!