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Previously (“Transit of Venus”) to honour Captain James Cook’s epic effort in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti I mentioned that I’m going to attempt to observe the last transit of Venus this century; well, I’m probably going to have lost my eyesight (or worse) by the next chance in 2117. I have been playing around with various options and have settled on a camera obscura design, the prototype of which has worked surprisingly well. Here’s how to make one, so you can be ready for the big moment on 6th June 6am (AWST)/8am (AEST) when Venus passes in front of the sun.

You will need:

1. A north or east facing area to observe the rising sun. I’m using a balcony but you’re free to use a patio, or perhaps even a small clearing in a forest. The view of the sunrise is the key thing.

2. A box containing 24 bottles of Monteith’s Summer Ale

3. A small hand mirror

4. A sharp pencil

5. A dressing mirror

6. A comfortable chair

7. An accurate timepiece

8. A copy of Kernighan & Ritchie’s landmark C programming language 2nd edition

9. A fresh lime

First, carefully open the box of summer ale and set the content aside in a cool place for later. Next, take the sharp pencil and poke a hole in the centre of the base of the box no more than 3mm thick. Position the box so that the base is directly facing the sun. This should result in a thin beam of sunlight shining through the hole you just created.

The business end of the Venusian Transit Machine

The business end of the Venusian Transit Machine

Quickly, take a sharp knife and slice open and drink the juice of the lime. This is important, since it will reduce significantly the possibility of suffering from scurvy during the observation, a detail Cook was only too aware of. Take the hand mirror and prop it up on Kernighan and Richie’s excellent tome at an angle such that the beam is directed onto the large dressing mirror. Finally align the large mirror so that the beam travels onto a wall in a shaded area, such as a darkened bedroom. The key thing here is to use the mirrors to lengthen the journey to the viewing wall as much as possible, which will give the pinprick of light more time to broaden out into a larger image. From experiment, a 3mm wide beam travelling for 30m yields a sun image roughly 25cm across, which should be ample to observe the disc of Venus.

Finally, and optionally, recline in the comfortable chair and open a refreshing ale to celebrate viewing one of nature’s rarer spectacles. Good luck!

planetary conjunction

Sun, Jupiter, Venus and the Moon

Recently, we moved to Perth. One of the highlights of the late afternoons here has been watching the sunsets over the Indian Ocean. Another prominent feature of the evening sky are the bright points of light chasing the sunset: mercury, venus, mars, jupiter and saturn all lined up with the moon recently and it was possible to watch them pursue the sun over the horizon one by one through the course of the evening. Jupiter’s gone from the sky now, a trick of trigonometry between its orbit and Earth’s has put it on the other side of the sun, which just leaves Venus. Venus has been chasing down the sun over the last few months and is now only a few minutes behind sunset. On June 6th, it will perform a transit across the disc of the sun, a feat that will not be repeated within our lifetimes: December 11th 2117.

The transit of Venus is significant because it was used to solve one of the great unanswered questions of the 18th and 19th centuries: just how big is our solar system? Astronomers had mapped the orbits of the planets and produced a set of ratios, so knew just how many times larger Jupiter’s orbit was than Earth’s, but lacked any way of knowing the absolute distance of one orbit (and hence, by inference, the distances of all remaining orbits). In 1768, the Endeavour was dispatched from England to sail to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus the following year and answer this question. In command of the voyage was Captain James Cook, with orders to go, boldly (they didn’t split infinitives back then), discover strange new lands and new civilisations and be ready with a solar observatory up and running in the newly discovered island half a planet away from home by June 1769. It was an undertaking comparable to a mission to the moon and the construction of the Large Hadron Collider all rolled into one. The canny Yorkshireman made it with most of his crew intact and a month to spare.

The maths is fairly simple, as Edmund Halley worked out in 1716, providing you can get an accurate timing for the start and the end of the transit. If you can do this for widely separated points on the earth you can work out by the principle of parallax the angle formed by the line between Earth and Venus, and so get the distance between the planets. Cook’s mission was ostensibly to make the most accurate timing he could from the greatest possible distance to ensure the largest parallax. It turned out that, of the 76 places on the planet that the transit was viewed from, the rate of error in the observations swamped any chance of getting an accurate result. That would have to wait 120 years for the next transit.

Significantly for those of us living Down Under, Cook then opened his secret orders which directed him westwards to discover the great unknown land rumoured to exist there. He went on to make a full circumnavigation of New Zealand before heading further west to strike land at Botany Bay, in what is now Sydney, New South Wales. A wealth of new botanical discoveries, a timing of the Venusian transit, the first accurate maps of New Zealand and the Australian east coast, all in a secondhand converted coal ship… not a bad effort.

Living in WA, the transit will start at around 6am, so will already be underway at dawn. The east coast will be able to observe all of it, from 8am until about 2.30pm. So, in honour of the occasion, I’m going to repeat Cook’s epic experiment from the comfort of my own balcony. I don’t have a flashy telescope, and direct observation of the sun is definitely out, so it will have to be through a pinhole camera set-up using household items. It may be a bit of work, but then again: last chance to see…

A useful link to the 2012 transit of venus is here.

This week saw the passing of Dennis Richie, father of the C programming language and the Unix operating system. I don’t claim to know anything about the man; I reckon that for the seventy years he’s been on the planet most people would have not recognised him in the street. There will certainly be no flowers left in front of Unix Stores around the planet (because they don’t exist) or tribute tweets from rockstars. There will be no comparisons to Einstein from Barack Obama or claims of mateship from Bill Gates. But the fact remains that Richie set to work solving a problem in the 70’s that transformed the world as much as the invention of electricity a hundred years previously.

There is a point when a technology ceases to be seen anymore because it has become part of the invisible fabric of society: Richie’s work has reached that level. To illustrate, maybe you’re reading this on a smartphone on the train. There’s a 55% chance your phone is running a Unix derivative, almost 100% chance its underlying code is written in C or one of its family of descendants. The webpage was routed through telecoms hardware running programs written (ultimately) in a C-family language. The server it came from is running Unix, the page written by an editor running on Microsoft Windows (itself a world changer, originally coded in C, now C# – another descendant of C++ and Java, themselves children of C).

The train you’re on is being scheduled (however badly) by a program almost certainly written in a C language by people getting paid through a payroll system written in the same and probably running on a flavour of Unix. The sandwich in your bag had its flour milled by machines using C in their microprocessors powered by electricity generated from stations running the same technology. The filling was most likely delivered thanks to an order management system written in the same, and you’re probably sharing your journey with at least one person who is currently only alive because of a nifty piece of implanted bionics that has its instructions programmed in C. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: any sufficiently adopted technology is indistinguishable from air.

So, two giants of technology died this week. One is quite rightly credited with a pivotal role in changing the way we use technology. The other, very quietly, actually changed the world.

There’s a blue line that runs round Centennial Park if you care to examine the tarmac closely. It’s broken and scrubbed out in places but for me it’s at least as much a Sydney landmark as Centrepoint Tower. If you’re a serious tarmac archaeologist you’ll still find traces of it on the Harbour Bridge tracing out a racing line into the Cahill Expressway. It’s the marathon line from the 2000 Olympics and it’s no accident the Sydney marathon follows much of the same route, since it winds through some of the most picturesque views you’ll find in any city anywhere.

Certainly today at the 20km mark, when the initial excitement of running the bridge and up the fig tree avenue through Hyde Park past the ANZAC war memorial has faded and the little voice in your head is doing the maths (“not yet half way!” – shut up little voice!), it’s a boost to lock onto the blue line and know that you’re running a marathon following the same steps as Olympic gold medal winners. Their race was different to mine though. For a start they were home and hosed an incredible two and three quarter hours before me (yes, little voice, they could have run the full race, turned around and run back to the start and still have beaten me). It’s a certainty that their race plan would have looked very different to mine.

My plan was pretty simple: eat like a horse the day before, get a long glass of hydration salts and some muesli squares down the chute for breakfast, and then when the gun goes off, settle into a nice steady pace – with a forecast top temperature of 28 degrees, it was no time to be a hero. The plan went pretty well to 25km, on the long low incline from Anzac Parade back up to Oxford Street. It pretends it’s flat, but it lies… one look at the superhuman effort the Wheelies need to put in shows they’re not coasting that stretch – my hat’s off to those guys. It’s a big effort, especially baking in the sun.

The sun was the problem. Each kilometre under the glare draws more salt from you, and you have to put it back somehow. The body is a machine, and if you don’t put liquid and electrolytes in, it will grind to a halt. Get the balancing act wrong and you are in trouble, like four fellas I passed flat out on the tarmac with an ambulance team pumping IV fluids in through a drip.

I was flagging as I hit 30km and met up with the family support crew waving a wonderful handmade sign. I picked up an icy Powerade and the iPod with the running tunes pre-loaded. Earphones normally bug me when running, but this time it was like a super power boost: recharged with great tunes to thump away the distance. But trouble was looming and at 34km I hit massive cramps in my calf muscles. Cramps are usually the result of nerves misfiring because they don’t have the usual levels of sodium, potassium and magnesium, causing the affected muscle to lock up tight. All of a sudden it looked like the race was going to get away from me.

Through the Pyrmont dog leg, I was reduced to running 200m, stopping to stretch the muscles out and repeating: agonisingly slow progress. Walking helped, but would mean that a 4:15 pace would become a 5:15 pace. I looked at the watch and noted that with 4km to go I would have to somehow find a way to keep running if I was to get in under the 4:30 target time. So it was run, cramp, stretch, repeat all the way, locking up twice on the final 500m through Circular Quay with the seconds running down to the 4:30 target. In the final stretch, with 100m to go and 30 seconds left I made a dash for the finish, cramping up badly three metres after crossing the line. And my time? 4:29.45.

Maybe the marathon is too much work. Maybe you can build up for three months through the cold and the rain and then still have something unexpected cripple you within sight of the finish. Maybe you step up to the start line and roll the dice that decides whether it’s you with the IV drip on the floor. But you’ll also find out more about yourself than you ever will at yoga. Will I run another one…? My legs say no. But what do they know? Maybe.

If this ends badly I’m going to blame it on a book. Also the person who kept pointing me at the book. I’ve collected my entry pack for the Blackmores Sydney Marathon and I’d be lying of I said I didn’t have a bit of a wobbly moment when the lady handed it to me. Unlike last year when, streaming with flu, I had an honorable way out. Guess I have to rock up and race this time.

The marathon thing started as a goal I set before my last birthday, because everyone needs challenges, right? And for a desk jockey with no previous form in this event and probably a good 10 to 15 kilos of extra weight it’s been a stiff challenge. My last attempt saw me scaling hillsides, baking in unexpected sun and even being chased by a very small dog in Hobart. At least I finished, which was more than the guy who decided to run it in bare feet.

So I committed to the Sydney Marathon again this year with a full training programme after having discovered from Hobart that training turns out not to be an optional extra. The one thing I learned from the Hobart race (aside from you should never run from a dog, or look like a weak member of the herd shuffling by its front gate) is that a marathon is actually just a 10km run up a very steep hill but you have to run 30km to get to the start; there is a point where it stops being a race and turns into a test of character.

I’m not big on tests of character so I fell back on the old adage: “train hard, fight easy”. This is where the book comes in… it’s Born to Run and was pushed on me by an enthusiastic colleague. It builds up to a 50km race through the canyons of the Mexican badlands between some of the best ultramarathon runners in North America and the Tarahumara, a local tribe of Zen running gods. It talks a lot about the optimal style for long distance running and how the modern running shoe has evolved to pamper the feet to such an extent that the injury rate has increased rather than decreased over the last few decades. It also talks a lot about humans running extreme distances on a regular basis through running long and running often. The biggest revelation to me was that it put to the sword the received wisdom that some people aren’t cut out to run and that running is possibly only until your knees inevitably give way some time in middle age.

So I made four changes in the build up to the marathon. Firstly, I’m trialling a change to my running style, concentrating on shorter strides and an upright posture. Secondly, I have stepped up the intensity of 10km runs during the week. Thirdly, I’m going on a fresh fruit and veg diet from now until race day (after which I will have a large steak). Finally, I didn’t buy the new pair of shoes and will stick with my comfortable old ones.

The race day strategy is to get to 37km relatively intact and watch out for small dogs. After that, apparently the crowd carries you the last five. Just so long as it’s not the ambulancemen.

I spend (a lot less) time (than I’d like) on Stockton sand dunes, up near Port Stephens on the NSW coast.  Rain or shine, it’s a beautiful place and there are plenty of things for a father and son to do.  Part of its attraction is the endless desolate progression of sand hills marching towards the far horizon, making it a great place to unwind after another hectic week.

There’s something about the dunes that promotes introspection; it’s no fluke, I think, that several of the world’s major religions came out of the desert.  In this case, we were turning back for home and the lad was running off in front of me back to the car and as I watched him forging the path I had the sense of the endless possibilities that lay ahead of him.  As an adult, I’m aware that I have already chosen many of the forks in the road and that as you get older, options become more limited and the effort required to change direction becomes larger and larger.  You have to make smart choices because, unlike a four-year-old, you’re aware that the length of time you can wait for something come to fruition is finite.

Ultimately, there is an event horizon in the future, a dividing line in time beyond which you will never see.  Looking at my lad racing off down the dunes, I suddenly understood how that time belongs to him and not me; we have only a limited right to impose beyond our event horizon.

I spend my days at work trying to predict what the future will look like.  But the future looks like this, and we are not invited.

walking home through the dunes