In the past month, there has been a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse, and a once-in-a-lifetime transit of Venus. Yesterday, Venus slowly traversed the scope of the sun; over the course of six hours, it could be seen as a quavering black spot that will not return to this position until December, 2117. For astrologers, these cosmic events prophesy change; in particular, Venus signifies alterations to the fields of love, relationships, romance, and finance. For past astronomers, like British Captain James Cook, who traveled to Tahiti to observe the transit in 1769, the event taught us about the distance between the earth and the sun (also known as an Astronomical Unit). Now, astrophysicists use this data to estimate the number of exoplanets in the universe (planets outside our solar system).
Watching the transit live yesterday (via the Exploratorium at Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii), I was struck not only by the beauty of this cosmic event, but also by the relative smallness of earth, of myself, of everything that I deem ‘important’ here on this swirling planet that scientists recently noted may be close to an environmental collapse. Thankfully, astronomers now estimate that there are more than 160 billion star-bound planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. What does that say about our planet earth? About humanity? About the triviality of this existence?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that yesterday the Dalai Lama posted the following note on Facebook (of all places!):
Given the scale of life in the cosmos, one human life is no more than a tiny blip. Each one of us is a just visitor to this planet, a guest, who will only stay for a limited time. What greater folly could there be than to spend this short time alone, unhappy or in conflict with our companions? Far better, surely, to use our short time here in living a meaningful life, enriched by our sense of connection with others and being of service to them.
The Dalai Lama’s words, and my experience watching the Transit of Venus set to a live sound composition, reminded me that, if we only pay attention, there is magic everywhere. Rather than be distraught by the unbearable largeness and incomprehensibility of the universe, it is perhaps worth taking solace in our ability to investigate the true essence of things, as Galileo noted in his essay on Knowing Properties vs. Knowing Essences:
In my estimation, we should not totally refrain from the investigation of things, even if they are very far from us, unless we have first decided it best to postpone any speculative activity to all other occupations of ours. The reason is as follows.
Either we want, by theorizing, to try to penetrate the true and intrinsic essence of natural substances, or we want to limit ourselves to gain information about some of their properties. As for trying to penetrate the essence, I regard it as an undertaking and a job no less impossible and useless for the case of nearby elementary substances. I feel equally ignorant about the substance of the earth and of the moon, of terrestrial clouds and of sunspots.
For understanding these nearby substances, I see no other advantage than the abundance of details; but these are equally not understood, and we keep searching through them with very little or no gain. If I ask what is the essence of clouds and am told that it is a humid vapor, next I will want to know what vapor is. Perhaps I will be told that it is water rarified by the action of heat and transformed accordingly. But equally unclear about what water is, I will ask for this, and finally I will hear that it is the fluid body which flows in rivers and which we constantly handle and deal with. But this information about water is merely more direct and dependent on more senses, but not more intrinsic than my earlier information about clouds. Similarly, I do not understand the true essence of earth or fire any more than that of the moon or the sun; this knowledge is reserved for our understanding when we reach the state of blessedness, not before.
However, if we want to limit ourselves to knowledge of some properties, I do not think we should despair of being able to ascertain them in bodies that are extremely far from us as well as in those next to us; on the contrary, sometimes by chance we know more precisely a property of the former than one of the latter. Who does not know the periods of the motions of planets better than those of seawater? Who does not know that the spherical shape of the body of the moon was understood much earlier and more quickly than that of the earth? And is it not still controversial whether the earth remains motionless or goes wandering, whereas we are most certain about the motions of quite a few stars?
Thus, I want to conclude that although it would be fruitless to undertake the investigation of the essence of sunspots, it does not follow that we cannot know some of their properties, such as their location, motion, shape, size, opacity, mutability, production, and dissipation. These can then enable use to philosophize better about other more controversial questions regarding natural substances. Finally, lifting us to the final purpose of our efforts, namely, the love of the Divine Architect, they can sustain our hope of learning all other truths from [IT], source of light and truth.
I love the way Galileo seamlessly connects the pursuits of science and religion in this last paragraph—concepts of a ‘Divine Architect’ aside, there is something beautiful in the constant human pursuit of truth and knowledge, while remaining open to the magic inherent in that which we do not know, and perhaps, that which we will not ever fully comprehend.
In keeping with the spirit of adventure, here are some Transit of Venus-worthy travel suggestions:
The Big Island, Hawaii
Mauna Loa Observatory: tours are available on weekdays; for a more tourist-friendly visitor experience, you can also try the Mauna Kea Observatory. The two observatories are located near the two volcanic mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, so hiking in the area is also a good way to explore the volcanoes. Just be sure to stay clear of live lava.
Hilo Homemade Ice Cream: If the lava got you too hot, check out this local ice cream spot in downtown Hilo.
The Four Seasons Hualalai Kona: Worth every pretty penny, this beach-side hotel is one of the island’s most luxurious. If you’re a Jack Nicklaus fan, you’re in luck: he designed the golf course here.
Hawaii Island Resort: an eco-boutique hotel that proves a good ‘green’ alternative to larger resorts on the island.
Tetiaroa: Ever want to vacation in a place where Marlon Brando once sunk his toes in the sand? Brando’s relatives are currently working with developers to build a one-of-a-kind eco boutique hotel (the most ‘eco friendly resort in the world’) on the island that was host to many of Brando’s frolics in the sun.
Tahiti on a budget: Scared silly by the idea of a costly trans-Pacific flight and money hungry resort profiteers? (I know I am!) There’s a solution to your woes: read this article on visiting Tahiti on a budget.