Combine the one state in all 50 to see the entire transit of Venus on June 5th with a national park with a name like Haleakala (“House of the Sun” in Hawaiian), then add 12 high school math and science students and you’ve got a great recipe for a historic astronomical event.
Venus crossing in front of the sun happens in eight year pairs roughly every 120 years. In 1769, Captain James Cook voyaged to Tahiti to time and record the event for England’s Royal Academy. Edmund Halley (of comet fame) postulated decades earlier that timing the event could provide pieces in the missing-data-puzzle that would finally allow mathematicians and astronomers to precisely calculate Earth’s distance from the sun.
This information had practical uses in the world of navigation. Lack of good equipment foiled the experiment for Cook’s team, but the 1874-1882 events had benefit of better gear and King Kalaukawa of the Hawaiian Kingdom had a strong interest in astronomy and avidly followed those transits.
Haleakala National Park’s summit is in the world’s top-ten places for “seeing” – the term astronomers use to describe great places for looking outward. Haleakala National Park’s summit is 10,023 feet above sea level, and often surrounded by clouds protecting it from dust and, for now, light pollution. And at 21 degrees north it’s close enough to the equator to enjoy low atmospheric shimmer.
So it was no surprise that the park would have extra visitors that day. Instead of seeing the day as a challenge, park staff teamed-up with biology teacher Sherri Reed and math teacher Gilson Killhour of Seabury Hall High and Middle School of Maui to enlist students who would be eager to share their research with visitors from around the world.
While today’s technology allows live-streaming of the event and we have better ways of measuring the universe, June 5th will live on for many because of the enthusiastic interpretation provided by the sky-savvy students. Although classes are finished for the year, they volunteered a day of their summer to use the park’s “sun spotters” (projection scopes) and show visitors how to use sun-viewing visors safely. Math students demonstrated the triangulations and others interpreted the history and science of the event. Three students in the film studies course plan to post their documentary of the day on YouTube and the team will be sharing their data at transitofvenus.org.
June 5th could have been remembered as nothing more than a day when a “black dot moved across the sun.” Instead it will be remembered by roughly 1500 visitors as a magic day of seeing our place in the universe because they were met by enthusiastic students turned interpreters for a day.