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March 2, 2012 — Students provide opportunity to witness rare astronomical phenomenon

by Sean Bettam — Friday, Mar 02, 2012

March 2, 2012 — Students provide opportunity to witness rare astronomical phenomenon

University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection curators Paul Greenham, Ari Gross and Erich Weidenhammer.


March 2, 2012
By
Sean Bettam

Unles you saw the last transit of Venus in 2004, you’ve likely never seen the planet pass between the Sun and Earth, considering that the last time it happened before that was in 1882. The next occurrence is expected in June, and if you miss this one you’ll have to wait more than 100 years for another one.

This is why some graduate students at the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) are providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the transit of Venus, and better understand how it has shaped the study of our solar system.

“The transit is a reliable phenomenon that occurs in pairs every 120 years or so,” said IHPST PhD student Paul Greenham.  He is among a group of students who are organizing a symposium and exhibit to address the historical significance of the transit, as well as a public viewing of the event itself on June 5.

“Over the years, the transit of Venus has been used to measure the size of the solar system, using already known proportional distances and the time it took for Venus to cross the sun to find actual distances. Today, transits of planets around other stars allow us to find and analyze the properties of such planets. Occasionally you read of regular discoveries of new planets, and transits are one of the main phenomena used in these discoveries.”

The undertaking is supported in part by the Faculty of Arts & Science Dean’s Student Initiative Fund, and is one of eight new projects led by students to receive funding. The fund provides financial support for initiatives that aspire to create dialogue and foster a greater sense of community through special events, lectures, or other forms of community engagement.

Greenham is a co-curator of the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, which includes a telescope used to view the 1882 transit of Venus. He said the funding is crucial to allow the group to carry out all that they want to do around this year’s transit.

“We want to rework our display space on the 3rd floor of Victoria College and set up a new exhibit, with improved security, lighting and posters,” he explained. “The support from the Fund will be instrumental in implementing all this.”

The exhibit will open on April 28 and run until the date of the transit. The opening coincides with a day-long symposium co-presented with U of T's Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics to commemorate the transit and explore its significance.

Some of the other projects receiving funding from the Dean’s Student Initiative Fund include: a lecture and small-press printing demonstration by Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, publisher of Giller Prize-winner The Sentimentalists; a series of events to prepare on-campus gardens engaged in sustainable-food production; and an exhibition of rarely seen propaganda posters representing labour and work from China’s Cultural Revolution.