Looking through pinhole cameras


Got that? It’s all over the Internet today and the very first warning in nearly every article or tidbit on today’s celestial event — the Venus Transit. This event, which happens only twice a century, is when Venus passes between the Earth and the sun. It will look like a black dot crossing the sun. But looking directly at the sun, well, can blind you. So scientists and journalists urge you to catch this phenomenon in a safe way, which always reminds me of the pinhole cameras we made back in elementary school to view a partial solar eclipse. I don’t remember much specifically about it, but I do recall a shoebox, tinfoil and a boatload of childhood excitement.

I loved all things space growing up. It was a time when NASA’s space shuttle program was in full swing. Launches and landings were nationally televised events. I briefly wanted to be an astronaut, not fully understanding what an astronaut actually did. There was a romance to the planets and the stars which, when mixed with science, opens up worlds of possibility. While events like the Venus Transit aren’t necessarily “new” news in the astronomy and scientific community, it does put the heavens, if but for a moment, on our personal radar screens. For a moment, we have a chance to think big and open our imaginations, like we did back in sixth grade with our pinhole cameras and solar system salt maps.

Yesterday, I heard a commentary from NPR’s Adam Frank (who also is an astrophysicist) about the Venus Transit and its relationship to time:

The transit of Venus reminds us of something essential. We are so busy worrying about getting the kids to school before homeroom, getting to work before the shift starts or getting to the gym for spin class that we completely forget time spins on many different cycles. While our heads are down waiting for a Facebook page to update on our cellphones, the solar system continues relentlessly on in its steady, stately dance of gravity, matter and motion.

I actually thought of while doing my 5-mile run this morning. Time does spin on many different cycles. Actually, all kinds of ways in which we measure ourselves spin on different cycles. We all get caught up in metrics — in our schedules, our downloading speeds, our average run pace, our calories consumed. We cross things off our to-do list because that is what makes us feel productive. But events like the Venus Transit remind us that the world, the universe, works on all kinds of levels. And it gives us a chance to appreciate the meta view, the once-every-100-years kind of time frame. It’s not that our daily schedules or latest workout stats are insignificant. It’s that they are only part of the bigger picture. And sometimes we need to step back, look at our life as a whole and appreciate the beauty and mystery of it all — even if we need a pinhole camera to do it safely.


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