We gathered in the bright sun on the shores of an ancient mystery, a fireman, a geek, a ranger and a rotating writer.
Well, actually — we were all rotating, spinning with the planet as the cosmos lines itself up.
Tonto National Monument Ranger Mark Stewart held court before his telescopes as Venus drifted across the face of the sun.
Wounded in the Gulf War, Stewart was blind for two years before a series of surgeries finally restored sight in at least one eye. He took up astronomy after that, determined to witness all the wonders of a teaming universe.
Philip Roberts, a computer and sound system expert for a university in Michigan, just happened to wander past with his Nikon and his font of obscure information — like how astronomers used the predicted passage of Venus across the
face of the sun in the 1700s to finally calculate the approximate distance from earth to the sun — which allowed them finally to estimate the size of the solar system.
Keith and Barb Godbold just happened to wander by, when they heard solar telescopes at the monument would give them a ringside seat for an event that won’t come round again for 120 years. He’s a retired firefighter living in Tonto Basin, who can tell you the story about working the fire line on a South Mountain brush fire when he had to dodge waves of rattlesnakes fleeing the flames.
Me, well, I just showed up.
The last time I enjoyed such an astronomical extravagance on the shores of Roosevelt Lake. I was with a group of archaeologists from Arizona State University, who had unearthed ruins abandoned by the Salado 600 years ago. The archaeologists found a big room they figured for a temple. I gathered with them at dawn on the summer solstice to discover whether a slit built into the wall would let light fall upon a design etched into an interior wall on the longest day of the year. Sure enough, the finger of sunlight touched the design as the archaeologists blew a long note on a conch shell.
But on Tuesday I’d come to watch the black dot of Venus crawl across the face of the star that holds us all in thrall.
Due to the vagaries of planetary orbits, these alignments occur in pairs. One took place in 2004 and one then again on Tuesday. We won’t see another until 2117.
The last pair took place in 1874 and 1882, about the time that Geronimo finally gave up his terrible struggle.
Humans first observed a transit in 1639, thanks to some brilliant calculating by Englishman Jeremiah Horrocks. He and a friend observed the event from different locations and used the angles between Earth, Venus and the sun to estimate our distance from the sun at 59 million miles.
The next set of transits in 1761 and 1769 engaged astronomers all over the world and refined the Earth-sun distance measurement to within a whisker of the correct 93 million miles.
The scientists devoted to that event include Guillaume Le Gentil, who spent eight years in an obsessive quest to observe either of the two transits. In the process his wife dumped him, he went bankrupt and he was mistakenly declared dead.
I, on the other hand, merely drove to Tonto National Monument, where a Navy quartermaster, turned combat casualty, turned naturalist-astronomer, turned ranger fired off wisecracks and mind-bogglers as he adjusted the telescopes to keep the sun in focus as the planet spun beneath our feet.
The disk of Venus crawled across the chaos of collapsing helium as gravity powered the nuclear fusion fires of the sun and converted 620 million tons of hydrogen into helium in every second of our vigil. The sun accounts for 99.86 percent of the mass in the entire solar system, but it’s only a middling star.
We oogled the sun spots — great storms in the plasma swirl of the sun that form cool areas twice the diameter of the earth where the magnetic field lines of the sun writhe and twist.
It seemed fitting that we should stand in the sunlight, since we’re all made of star stuff. Stars forged all the elements more complex than hydrogen and helium then in their dying scattered carbon and oxygen. This constitutes all the elements necessary to make a combat veteran who will not talk at all about the injury that forced him to live in absolute darkness for two years. But he can chatter all day about why the surface of the sun is only 6,000 degrees while the temperature in the outer reaches of the corona may reach as much as 36 million degrees (it’s the magnetic field, most likely).
Periodically, Mark and Robert would spin off into a highly technical discussion about Nikons and telescopes.
This left the rest of us free to sit and talk about rattlesnakes and vanished civilizations and prospects for a bridge over Tonto Creek, just upstream from where the lake has drowned the temple of the solstice built by people who lived here for 1,000 years before vanishing without explanation.
The edge of the Earth rose up to swallow the spectacle at sunset, with Venus still crawling across the immensity of our own personal star. We wayfarers shared the planet and the moment, the blinded warrior, the computer tech and the fireman.
I had but one regret: I forgot to bring a conch shell.