The percussion of the universe is neatly expressed in the transit of Venus.
Visible from earth as a tiny black circle moving across the face of the sun, the transit takes place in pairs, eight years apart, with a gap of more than a century in between.
Or, if you prefer, they’re like London buses. You wait 120 years for a transit of Venus, and then two come along at once. As it were.
That said, even though Wednesday next week witnesses the second in the eight-year double-act, if you think you’ve seen an earlier transit of Venus from New Zealand, you’re either a liar or a miracle.
The transit eight years ago was visible from the northern hemisphere only. The transit before that was in 1882.
In 1769, Captain James Cook sailed his way to Tahiti, where he timed the transit of Venus from a place called Point Venus. (Unfortunately it wasn’t called Point Venus then.)
His measurements helped to assess longitude data, and in the small matter of assessing the size of the solar system. Indeed, the 18th-century efforts to record the transit were the time’s “equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider”, wrote Stuart Clark in the Guardian.
Bold advances in fields such as transhumanism notwithstanding, you won’t get another chance to see it, either. So with the assistance of Listener science columnist Rebecca Priestly’s handy how-to-watch guide, set some time aside next Wednesday to gaze into the solar system. Try to look awestruck, if you can. There could be photographers.
The generational nature of the transit was presumably part of Paul Callaghan’s thinking when in 2008 he conceived the Transit of Venus Forum – Lifting Our Horizon.
To be held in Gisborne and Tolaga Bay from Tuesday to Friday next week, the gathering brings together about 30 speakers and dozens of others to discuss New Zealand’s future, and science, and technology, and innovation, and plenty more.
Callaghan, who died earlier this year, described his vision of the forum this way:
We are using this extraordinary phenomenon in 2012 to provide the focus for a major event on the East Coast of New Zealand, where Cook first landed.
There will be a forum on 7 and 8 June 2012, in Gisborne, that will be aimed at a new generation of New Zealand thinkers: policy makers, journalists, educators, business people, community leaders and other interested New Zealanders will be invited. There we will confront our current realities and risks and put forward some bold and optimistic opportunities for development.
On June 6, the day of the Transit of Venus and focal point, conference participants and many other guests from overseas and around New Zealand will gather in Tolaga Bay to witness the Transit together with the local community and celebrate our rich dual heritage. It was in Tolaga Bay where the first constructive korero took place between Maori and Europeans, with Tupaia, a Raiatean chief aboard the Endeavour, as interpreter and facilitator.
The conference that follows, while optimistic and forward looking, will be grounded in a realistic assessment by scientists of our current condition and risks in respect of our land, sea, water, biodiversity, human capacity, and energy sources. Key to the occasion will be partnership with local iwi; the emerging Maori economy, subsequent to final Treaty settlements, will be a major theme.
Other themes will include: how can our scientists and a science-based economy help New Zealand rise to the challenge it now faces following the Christchurch earthquakes? How can we make a living in a way that improves and conserves our natural capital?
The speaker line-up includes: The line-up of over 30 speakers includes Craig Nevill-Manning, Derek Handley, Sir Ray Avery, Sir Peter Gluckman, Dame Anne Salmond, Gareth Morgan, Shaun Hendy, David Skilling, Caroline Saunders, Apirana Mahuika, Al Morrison, Peter Townsend, and Rick Boven.
The full programme is here.
Kim Hill is hosting a series of discussions, which will be broadcast on Radio New Zealand at some stage.
I’m heading to the forum next week, as are a couple of other Listener columnists: Peter Griffin, who wears another hat, as manager of the Science Media Centre, and Rebecca Priestley, a science writer and historian.
I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion chaired by Peter on Friday morning. I hope to write about that, and a bunch of other sessions.