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In Skopje, a Cosmic Encounter with Venus

June 9, 2004


By Christopher Deliso

Although at first it seemed Skopje’s cloudy skies would ruin everything, yesterday morning Macedonian astronomy buffs in the capital got what they came for: a good glimpse of Venus, strung like a black pearl across the edge of the sun, transiting it for the first time in 122 years.

One of the heavens’ rarest events, the transit was celebrated by astronomers, astrologers, prophets of doom and unaffiliated lay persons all across the world.

Official websites from both the EU and NASA provided some helpful information and vintage photos of the 1882 transit-watchers. Egyptian schoolchildren were taken to the pyramids to peer at the sun through protective glasses. On account of their great antiquity and mysteriousness, the pyramids were called “the perfect place to watch something so rare as Venus in front of the sun,” according to one 15 year-old student.

Even former Queen guitarist Brian May showed his enthusiasm, in true British style. “…Asked how it was going, the rock legend said: ‘fantastically well actually, with the simplest of equipment giving a nice projective image here we have been following the whole thing very successfully.’”

An Australian man who invited 40 friends to his house for the event called it an “astonishing sight” and said that he felt “…privileged to be alive at the right time, to be in the right place, to have no clouds or monsoons.” Quite a philosophical way of looking at it, considering the chaotic state of world affairs today.

The small group of 20 or so Macedonian junior high and high school students also found it pretty riveting, even if somehow the setting- Skopje’s under-construction city square, above the muddy River Vardar- was not quite as inspired. They arrived early, before 6:30 AM, to set up the large telescopes (that looked oddly similar to RPG’s, by the way) as well as a sort of chalkboard spread across with white paper. This was later the spot where the image of the sun was deflected through the telescope, and with it Venus’ moving black circle.

Despite the planet’s popular relationship with love, beauty and sensuous pleasures, Venus has an atmosphere that can only be described as harsh. It is “intolerably hot” (480 degrees Celsius), and pockmarked with volcanoes that explode under thick clouds of carbon dioxide that spew hydrochloric acid rain. Its mass is 90 percent that of Earth’s. A single Venusian day is equivalent to 243 of ours.

The Macedonian enthusiasts waiting on Tuesday were acquainted with all of these details, exhibiting knowledge of all the other planets in the solar system and more. And, as with astronomers in the Canary Islands, South Africa and elsewhere, the Macedonians busied themselves with jotting down timings and calculations during frenzied moments of activity occurring whenever the sun would appear from out of rolling cloud cover that worsened, and then dissipated for good, as the morning wore on. Astronomers have long used the transit as a means of measuring the distance between the Earth and sun, as well as the distance between the Earth and Venus itself. Skopje’s observers were thus participating in an informal global measurement project which involved viewers from all over the world.

According to Radan Mitrovic, the bespectacled de facto leader and senior member of the bunch, the Skopje club had split up in two parts. His had come to the city square, whereas the other had set up shop in another location with a larger telescope, and hoped to make a webcast of the event. But the poor weather conditions meant that at the peak of the transit (7:25 AM) the sun was obscured completely.

However, within 30 minutes it had begun peeking out long enough for the excited students to catch a glimpse of the Venusian movement through the telescopes and projected onto the paper. According to Radan, this event is just one of the activities the group holds (visit their website here for more information) in relation to astronomical phenomena such as eclipses, meteor showers and the occasional Venus transit. But he stresses that his club is strictly amateur. “Astronomy is not taught in the university,” he adds.

Young Filip Partalovski, laments this lack. “I can’t learn to be an astronomer here in Macedonia.” This devoted student of the stars would like to be someday make a profession of it. “So I will study physics at Skopje’s Kiril and Methodi University, and hopefully after that study astronomy for a master’s degree in Austria.”

Such long-term devotion isn’t a priority for Victorija Boichava, a graduating high-school student learning French for university. “It’s something that I do for fun, and learn something at the same time,” she says about tracing the movement of celestial spheres. For his part, student Bojan Velichkov has a visionary belief that “astronomy is the future,” because “space exploration” will only increase as this century unfolds.

Could there actually be signs of intelligent life? Members of the Skopje astronomy club recall the night not so long ago when UFO’s were said to have been flying over Skopje’s Mt. Vodno. While this affair ended inconclusively, one of the young men claims to have witnessed the “appearance” through his telescope at home. When asked to describe what he saw, the boy traces the classic shape of a flying saucer in the air. The conversation then turned to speculation about the Mexican Air Force and American secret military bases in the western desert. But when it comes to UFO aficionados, the Macedonians are much less devoted than their Russian cousins.

Even without considering the possible threat of alien life forms, certain Hindu astrologers have seen much worse ramifications in Venus’ jaunt across the sun. One warned that the transit might “arouse dangerous passions” and, mean that “…brides may no longer prize virginity and Hindu ascetics may soon discard the time-old practice of celibacy as nonsense.”

In fact, there are whole websites devoted to outlining the need to plan for “surviving 2012.” Citing the Mayan calendar and notable cosmic phenomena such as Venus’ second transit, this website urges people to prepare for “a major cataclysm” on December 21, 2012, when the calendar runs out.

Speculation runs the course from a total apocalypse to a sudden spiritual transformation ushering in a grand new era for human life. But we probably shouldn’t trouble our minds with such enormous theories, when there is ample reason to worry about whether even little Macedonia will survive through 2012.

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