Morning Star, Ripped from the Headlines

UV_venus
Ultraviolet image of Venus obtained by Pioneer-12.
Image Credit: BNSC

Among all Google web searches for the month of June 2004, the most popular event was surprising. Exceeding all other events online for the month was the June 8th Venus transit of the Sun.

On the day, Venus appeared to cross in front of the sun as viewed from Earth. Only the two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, can show this phenomenon, but the last time a transit happened involving Venus was in 1882, thus making the event the rarest of eclipses.

In its bidding for the most popular internet event, the planet transit beat out four big sporting events: European football finals (Euro2004 soccer), the National Basketball Association finals, Wimbledon Tennis and the US Open Golf. Perhaps web searchers were really wondering why Venus Williams lost so early at Wimbledon. Or is the internet really a technocracy? Apparently at least for June, the internet community was mostly populated by sports fans that own telescopes.

The Venus transit was a global event. The eclipse was visible from approximately 75 percent of the Earth , which may give a hint as to why a global audience might bid up the popularity of an otherwise specialized public event.

This internet popularity is remarkable, particularly given that the transit of a sun by its planet is a relatively obscure occasion (not visible in an obvious way by just looking up in the sky without specialized equipment). "People using a filter approved for safe solar viewing can expect to see a small black dot, about 1/30 the size of the solar disk, very slowly moving across the sun," said Fred Espenak, an eclipse expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

When combined with the recent addition of the NASA term, astrobiology, to the Oxford English Dictionary, one might wonder whether a groundswell of mainstream astronomy interest was in the offing.

Astronomers once used the last Venus transit to discover the distances between the sun and all the planets of the solar system. One could imagine a popular curiousity for the science community to know the scale of our solar system. Using other methods today, the solar system is known to centimeter scales or better in accuracy. However, observing the transit of Venus still plays an important role in astronomy today. Those who search for extrasolar planets can use the same observational methods to find terrestrial planets in other star systems where hot, gaseous, Jupiter-like planets have been found. A new planet is found when the parent star’s brightness flickers or dims in a regular orbital timing.

To track the popularity of events on the internet, Google employs a monthly summary called a ‘zeitgeist’ report–a German term dating back one hundred years, nearly to the last Venus transit– and meaning ‘the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era’. What the rare eclipse shows about our own era depends on today’s internet demographic. Given a good picture and predictions that seed the media buildup, an event millions of miles away from home can still outpace an annual soccer game.


Related Web Pages

Morning Star Crosses Star
Soviet Exploration of Venus
Dr. David Grinspoon’s FunkyScience.net
Lonely Planets
Magellan Image Server
Magellan Mission Home
Fact Sheet on Venus
Past Missions to Venus
Atmosphere and Weather on Venus
Chemical Weathering Reactions on Venus