Aside from the present, the late 18th century is undoubtably one of my favorite time periods. It was a time in which the Age of Enlightenment may have been nearing an end but was still burning red hot. Science and reason had emerged not only in the service of nationalism but was generating discoveries at an exhilarating rate and captivating the popular imagination.
Against the backdrop of Enlightenment were the defining transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769. Scientists believed that observing the transits accurately could unlock the answer to a simple question humankind had puzzled over for millennia: just how far away is the Sun? Although the transits arrived in close pairs separated by only 8 years, the next set of transits would not reoccur until 1874 so there was tremendous pressure to succeed.
Hundreds of scientists set sail to locations throughout the world, hoping to catch a glimpse of the transit and be the first to bask in the glory of priority. Most of the expeditions would end in failure. Some were of such comically devastating proportions they sound like something dreamed up in an ancient Greek tragedy. Bill Bryson recounts one such misfortune a la Timothy Ferris in A Short History of Nearly Everything:
Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on the day of the transit―just about the worst place to be, since steady measurements were impossible on a pitching ship.
Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, 4 June 1769, he awoke to a fine day; but, just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit of three hours, fourteen minutes and seven seconds.
Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.
Stories like these make my own challenges with observing the 2012 transit seem petty in comparison. I simply had to drive an hour south to my parent's house to escape the clouds that shrouded Seattle. And with the proper filters for direct observation having long been sold out (my poor planning), a little paper rigging to a spotting scope allowed me to safely witness nature's spectacle.
Watching a tiny speck move across a brightly lit disc may seem trivial to some, but take a step back and look at the bigger picture. To see nature put on a show so rare, one that not even your children are likely to see, is one of the most thrilling―dare I say, sacred―events I can possibly imagine and I feel extraordinarily lucky to have witnessed it. If an event like that doesn't move you or even foment a slight pause I'd suggest you check your pulse. You may be dead.