All eyes on Venus

BOLOGNA, Italy – In this old center of stargazing, as in much of the world, thousands watched a rare heavenly show Tuesday: the black dot of Venus inching across the blazing face of the sun.

“Ecco!” gasped one matronly woman as the big screen at Piazza VIII Agosto showed a tiny perfect circle edge into view. “There it is!”

When scientists first worked out the Earth’s distance from the sun, the Venus eclipse was crucial. “This sight is by far the noblest astronomy offers,” Edmond Halley, of comet fame, declared in 1691.

Now mostly a curiosity, the celestial rarity still had excited crowds lining up to peer into telescopes from Australia to the American Midwest.

“It’s a brilliant opportunity to know the mechanics of our solar system,” said 14-year-old Shereeza Feilden at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

“Spectacles such as this reinforce my belief that there is a Creator, and we are just tiny specks within this universe,” Zulkarnain Hassan, 26, said in Malaysia, a mostly Muslim nation.

Reactions were similar from people who shared a faith-straddling religious experience to those who marveled at a universal phenomenon.

“Imagine,” said Bologna astronomer Corrado Bartolini. “We can’t even tell when a car will reach Zamboni Gate in traffic, but we know to a fraction of a second when Venus meets the sun every 122 years.”

Venus makes two passes across the sun, eight years apart, every 122 years; the next one will be in 2012. As the sun is 30 times bigger, the planet is barely visible through special dark glasses.

Nicolo Reale, an art student in wild dreadlocks, forgave his roommate for dragging him out of bed to see Venus at the piazza. “Stupendous,” he said. “It makes me think of man and woman and love.”

In Oslo, Norwegian astronomer Knut Joergen Roed Oedegaard proposed to Anne Mette Sannes on a viewing platform, and 2,000 people gathered there thundered applause when she said yes.

American experts worked at opposite ends of Greece – on the island of Crete and at Thessaloniki – to study the “black drop effect,” which shapes Venus into a teardrop as it approaches and leaves the sun.

“It’s like a fine French wine for the people who know about it and enjoy it,” said Jay Pasachoff of Williams College in Massachusetts, who watched from Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University.

Associated Press

A fisherman goes about his morning routine Tuesday at Flagler Beach, Fla., as Venus creeps in front of the rising sun.

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