The Transit of Venus and of Ray Bradbury: June 5, 2012

Venus seen by NASA's Pioneer Spacecraft, 1979.

It had been raining for seven years; thousand upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.

So wrote Ray Bradbury of Venus in 1954, in a heartbreaking yet beautiful short story of less than 2,000 words, “All Summer in a Day” (found in The Stories of Ray Bradbury). In that tale, Venus’ clouds thin once every seven years, just enough for the sun to break through for about an hour.  The native schoolchildren tease one Earth-born classmate who remembers and yearns for the sun. They lock her in a closet as a prank when the magic hour approaches.

It sounds like unpromising fodder, but “All Summer in a Day” is the best short story I have ever read, a gently-written parable with a haunting lesson about bullying that has stayed with me since I first read it in fourth grade.

We now know that the clouds of Venus hide not a monsoon world, but a volcanic hellhole where a runaway greenhouse effect has raised the temperature to nearly 900 degrees,  nearly twice the temperature at which books burn in Bradbury’s watershed novel, Farenheit 451. 

Bradbury wrote several stories set on his rainy Venus, as well as his more famous Chronicles set on Mars. His science fiction stories turned airless worlds into vividly realized landscapes which we yearned to explore. Terra incognita: once Earth’s map was completely charted with no more room for “here be dragons,” Bradbury like many science fiction writers dreamed of dragons on other planets, and in so doing told us stories about ourselves.

A few decades later, space probes built by scientists who grew up on Bradbury’s stories went to Venus and Mars and other parts of our solar system and dismissed his Venusians, his Martians, the mythical places he had described.

But myths are not merely lies, as Joseph Campbell was saying: they are metaphors, tales that contain a kernel of truth conveyed through the art of storytelling, and they can survive when the places are mapped and the bards who told those tales have passed away.

One of my photos of transit of Venus, 2012

On June 5th, 2012, I stood with my telescope in a park in southern California gazing through my homemade solar filter at a little black spot against our sun. It was the transit of the planet Venus crossing exactly between us and the sun in a rare planetary alignment that happens very intermittently: once in 2004 (but not visible in my part of the world) and before that, the last time was in 1882.

In the 19th century, scientists around the world observed the transit of Venus to help them calculate, for the first time, the vast distances between Earth, Venus, and the Sun, and so measure the size of the solar system. (Read about this amazing episode of scientific discovery in Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens). The numbers they discovered were staggering — almost mythic — and humbling. Again, they put paid to many myths about the planets and our cosmos.

Watching Venus inch across the sun’s disc, I shared the event with a New Age shaman who was weaving her own Venus-myth, constructing her own meaningful if not-literally-true stories. I tried to experience this event from her frame of reference as well as the scientific one, putting down my camera and setting my telescope aside to drum and to feel the wind, to celebrate the symbols and myths of Venus/Aphrodite as a source of love, of fertility, of watery intuition. In the Sun’s glare that rendered the mystery invisible to the naked eye, Venus stood juxtaposed against Apollo, the god of rationality, science, reason and light: a small dark globe against a fiery life-giving furnace that will eventually engulf Venus and our own planet in its own declining years.

From my location, the sun set before Venus had quite cleared its blazing rim. At the same moment, less than a hundred miles from where I stood, Ray Bradbury the bard of Venus passed away in his home in Los Angeles. It seemed as if the planets had aligned to mark his passing. Impossible, of course, just like an hour of sunlight that comes only once every seven years, but it happened.

Bradbury’s stories inspired scientists. Science then killed the myths he told. Yet his stories live on, embodied yet not present on a small black dot, twin to our fragile and transitory home.

Sic transit omnia. Sed verba perdurant.

Ray Bradbury August 22, 1920-June 5, 2012


Venus transiting sun from satellite

NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory photographs Venus against Sun, June 5, 2012

The Stories of Ray Bradbury

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