I stood in the shadow of Venus

I also stood in a stairwell for a really long time, but that was fun, too. The UT astronomy club opened its rooftop to the public and recruited an army of volunteers, who were completely astonished by the size of the crowd.

I bumped into Brandon just as I arrived, and we entered the back of the line at the 7th floor. Luckily I was mistaken about how many floors there were—the flier mentioned a gathering place on the 13th floor, and that didn't sound so bad. Part way up I learned that the roof is above the 17th floor, but at that point I was well invested.

A stairwell full of people starts to smell like a stairwell full of people after a while. Each landing became a reprieve, a chance to catch some fresh air through the held-open doors (passed hand to hand, as we each climbed by) and, if you were quick, to dash out to a water fountain. An enterprising soul could set up a thriving business selling ball-park concessions to the people standing in line. It was the kind of line usually reserved for rock concerts. Which is why I love Austin.

Brandon got a call from a friend a few floors below us, and actually ceded his place in line to go join her. That left me to... shrug, talk to the people around me.

I met a bartender who said she received all kinds of verbal abuse as a bouncer but considerably more respect as a bartender. And no, people don't actually pour out their hearts to bartenders. I met a someday-med-student-but-currently-enterprise-support-agent who works at Dell. He camps under the awe-inspiringly dark skies in Big Bend, struck dumb by the sky-splitting blue gash of the Milky Way, and quieted by the realization that the mountains he could see from his cliff-side perch were in Mexico, 200 miles away. I met a photographer who got up at 2:30 this morning to capture time-lapse footage of the wheeling stars for his friends' film about the Bastrop wild fires. He went to space camp when he was in high school, so many years ago, and practiced a simulated space walk repairing the optics in the Hubble telescope.

So happy to burst out of the stairwell onto the 17th floor, and so resolved to stay chipper as we filed into a line that snaked down the hallway and back. We stood there for a while—at least it was air conditioned—until finally the mind starts to notice that the only movement is from the compression of the crowd. Cloud cover. They've halted the line to wait for clouds to clear. I wonder if we could all get on the roof and wave our arms to push the offending wisps out of the way. But I think about terms like "time invested" and "sunk cost," and waiting isn't so bad. Plus, we're talking about dark matter and SpaceX and deep-sky images, and I got to tell the story of visiting the Hobby Eberly Telescope, twice.

There is a time limit, though. You can't see Venus transit the face of the sun if the sun has set. 7:00 ticks by, which, rationally, I know is plenty of time, but I start to rehearse making the decision that night has fallen and it's time to go, having missed the whole thing while inside a windowless spiral of concrete.

But then the line moves, and we're up to the roof, and there are telescopes and people everywhere. And more lines, but at least there is air and sunlight. A volunteer with a basket of cardboard solar-viewing glasses gives me the chance to get my first look at Venus.

And, there it is! Plain as day, a disc in front of the red face of the sun. A shadow, interposed. Cheeky girl.

Spilling onto the sidewalk below, a fellow viewer said, "See you in 105 years." I replied, "I'll be there."


Martha said...

Wow! Good girl. I think we raised you right. Love,Mom

JT McCormick said...

That was a great read! I felt like I was actually in the stairwell and even got impatient while reading waiting for you to get to the top! Thanks for sharing! -JT