Why New Zealanders are so excited about the transit of Venus

The weather forecast for tomorrow’s transit of Venus is appalling. Cloud cover, rain, and gale force winds. But I was up in Tolaga Bay today – the focus of New Zealand’s celebrations of the transit – and the local Anglican priest, Stephen Donald, looked up at the sky, pointed to the sea, muttered a bit and said he thinks it’s going to be ok.

There are several reasons why we in New Zealand are so excited about the transit of Venus. First, if the cloud clears, we are one of the best-positioned countries in the world to observe the transit. We’re happy about this, because we completely missed the 2004 transit. Tomorrow, when the planet Venus starts to pass between the Earth and the Sun it will be 10.30am local time. And when Venus ends its transit it will be about 4.30pm. If the skies were clear (unlikely at the best of times) we’d get to see the whole thing.

The other reason we’re so excited is because a transit of Venus played a key role in our country’s history. After observations of the 1761 transit of Venus failed to result in a consistent calculation for the distance from the Earth to the Sun – the calculations were so varied that the observations were declared a failure – a successful calculation hinged on observations of the 1769 transit. London’s Royal Society sent James Cook to Tahiti where Cook set up a fort – Fort Venus – where Cook, astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks all observed the transit on June 3, 1769, carefully recording the time of contact of the shadow of Venus against the sun. After observing the transit, Cook opened a set of sealed instructions from the Royal Society that directed him to sail south in search of Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern continent. If he was unsuccessful, he was to chart the islands of New Zealand then sail home.

“It’s an extremely symbolic event in the history of our country,” said the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, who described Cook’s landfall at Uawa/Tolaga Bay, where his men came ashore and communicated and traded with local Maori, as “the beginning of the dual heritage between Maori and European in New Zealand’s history”. And just as science played a role in that first contact, says Callaghan, it can play a key role in New Zealand’s future. As a consequence, a focus of the Transit of Venus conference taking place in Gisborne this Thursday and Friday will be how scientists and a science-based economy can make a difference to New Zealand’s future – in regions like the East Coast as well as in the big cities.

Even if you’re not coming to the forum you can have your say on New Zealand’s future by playing this online game, Pounamu – it works kindof like twitter, so register now and have your say on how you’d like science to play a role in New Zealand in 2022.

Sir Paul and I worked together last year to edit a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, themed around the transit of Venus. The issue, which has just been published, has articles about Jeremiah Horrocks, first contact between Maori and European, Banks and Solanders’ botantical and zoological collections in New Zealand, Polynesian and European navigation systems, the 1874 transit of Venus as observed from New Zealand, and more. The entire issue is downloadable for free until 31 July this year.

So … fingers crossed for a sight of the Sun tomorrow!

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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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4 Responses to Why New Zealanders are so excited about the transit of Venus

  1. Georgina says:

    Not to be the bearer of cloudy tidings, but the Royal Society mag issue isn’t free on the link you provided…

    • Oh dear, sorry – I don’t think it liked me copying it from elsewhere. I’ve tried again, with a different link. It works for me now – do you want to try it again? Let me know if not and I’ll try something else!

      • Georgina says:

        Thanks for doing that – still no luck – it may be that your visual of the page is because you have institutional access. Sadly, no access for us non-scientists in the cheap-seats. But I’ll also keep trying because I love free journals!

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