The transit of Venus, on display about every century and also tonight, was used in the late 18th century to determine earth’s distance from the sun—a cornerstone measurement by which all cosmic distances have become knowable, such as they are. Venus will be a small black dot as she traverses, indeed nearly creeps, across el sol—nothing to stir the heart with her legendary beauty—yet men have long desired sight of her and gone to great lengths to have it. Perhaps it’s about timing: miss this one and you’ll have to wait until 2117, the very calculation of which bends the brain, and stirs the heart by its audacity. 2117, though: the human genome decoded or not, that’s an ambitious life expectancy.
Alas, the great human endeavors have always traveled alongside the sordid, and sad. Reaching for the stars, knowing the very universe, we again and again still stumble upon our urges and our shame. Captain James Cook set sail in HMS Endeavor for undiscovered Australia in 1769, stopping at Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3 of that year. Shirley Hazzard, in a paragraph from the novel Transit of Venus, describes the trip: Professor Thrale said, “now you are speaking of eclipse. Venus cannot blot out the sun.” He flicked crumbs from his cuff. One could not relate in the presence of two virgins how, at Tahiti on that blazing day of June 1769, Venus had been busy in other matters. While the officers were engrossed with James Short’s telescopes, the crew of the Endeavor had broken into the stores at Fort Venus to steal a heap of iron spike-nails—with which they procured for themselves the passing favours of Tahitian women; and the permanent infection of venereal disease no subsequent floggings could cure.