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Prof. Peter Barthel: ‘Watch the transit of Venus and understand the big picture!’

29 May 2012

On Wednesday, 6 June, observant viewers will see a small black speck slowly pass in front of the sun. That small black dot is the planet Venus. This is a phenomenon you must not miss, according to astronomy professor Peter Barthel. Although you will need to get up pretty early to see it: the transit of Venus will only be visible for one hour after sunrise.

Peter Barthel
Peter Barthel

A transit of Venus is a rare phenomenon. It has only been seen five times since the first observation in 1639. Venus will not pass exactly in front of the face of the sun again until 2117, so for us it is the last chance to see it happen. Barthel: ‘The transit of Venus starts shortly after midnight, when the sun is still well below the horizon. Unfortunately, this means we can only witness the last hour of the transit. In Europe, the only place to watch the complete transit of Venus is from the Arctic Circle.’

Watch it together at the Vismarkt

Various activities are being organized throughout the country to mark the transit of Venus. In Groningen, everyone is welcome from 5.30 a.m. onwards to observe the transit together from the Vismarkt. If the weather is good, the transit of Venus will be visible between 6 and 7 a.m. Telescopes will be erected and eclipse glasses will be distributed among the watchers. ‘This is very important,’ warns Barthel, ‘because serious eye damage is a real risk if you look straight into the sun without protection.’

Safe projection

The transit of Venus can also be seen clearly without eclipse glasses. Barthel: ‘You can create a projection by poking a hole in a piece of cardboard. Hold the cardboard up to the sun and catch the beam of light that comes through the hole on a sheet of white paper. If you look closely you will see a tiny spot in the projection of the sun on your paper: Venus.’

Big picture

But what can you learn from watching the transit of Venus? Actually, pretty much nothing at all, says Barthel. ‘Many people will not be aware of what’s going on, but it’s great to have the chance to see it. Phenomena like these are what first gave mankind an idea of the scale of the solar system. You may say that it’s worthless knowledge, but if you understand this, you’ll also understand the big picture.’

‘Of course, you can lead a perfectly contented life without knowing anything about these things,’ admits Barthel. ‘But understanding what’s going on around you and why it’s going on can be exhilarating. It’s fascinating to learn about the seasons and phases of the moon. Or why grass grows in the summer and not in the winter. Or that milk comes out of a cow and not out of a carton. These are simple examples, but my experience is that people enjoy discovering information like this.’

The wow effect

Barthel regularly gives talks about his research to interested parties, for example for the Junior University. His Kapteyn Institute also visits schools with a mobile planetarium. ‘I always exploit the wow effect and the aha effect during such visits. First you show them something that makes them say ‘wow’, something that really bowls them over because it’s so beautiful, interesting or extraordinary. This is followed directly by the aha effect, when you explain exactly what they are seeing in a such way that they really understand it.’

Duty to communicate

According to Barthel, it is essential that scientists explain their research and show outsiders exactly what they do. ‘I believe that scientists have a duty to communicate. We scientists are no longer paid by the King, or the nobility, but by society as a whole.

I believe that, in exchange for the tax euros we receive for our research, we have to ensure that society is kept informed of what we do – for example by giving a popular scientific lecture at least twice a year, which has the added advantage of increasing support for your work. This is the only way to ensure that the Dutch people once again become proud of their scientists.’

Curriculum vitae

Prof. Peter Barthel studied physics at the VU University followed by PhD research into Quasars at Leiden Observatory. From 1984-1988 he was in Pasadena as a researcher for Caltech. In 1988 he joined the Kapteyn Institute at the University of Groningen, first as a researcher and lecturer, and since March 2004 as professor of the astrophysics of active star systems. In 2008, Barthel and a team of University of Groningen researchers and students won the Academische Jaarprijs [Annual Academic Prize] for the best dissemination of scientific research to a broad audience.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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