Saturday, June 2, 2012

Venus in Transit

Next Wednesday, Finland will experience a rather neat and rare astronomical event, though not one so easy to notice. The transit of Venus is essentially the same as a solar eclipse, though instead of the moon blocking out the sun by passing between it and Earth, it’s Venus that’s blocking out the sun. Only, not so much.

Faraway Venus appears so small from Earth that we see it only as a small dot as it crosses the face of the sun. So, I imagine the transit won’t exactly be spectacular. But it is rare -- it won’t happen again for another 105 years – and it does have a unique scientific pedigree. 

When I heard that the transit of Venus was coming up, I immediately thought of James Cook and Tahiti. Naturally. Any excuse to think of a place like Tahiti.

The most recent transit, 2004.
Photo: Jen Herold.
What makes the solar transit of our neighboring planet so interesting is its role in a geometry exercise of astronomical proportions. Over 400 years ago, Johannes Kepler, a founding father of astronomy, revolutionized the field by discovering a more accurate model of how planets move around the sun. He was thus able to predict when Venus and smaller Mercury would next transit the sun, but died a year before the first of these events took place, in 1631, and no one was prepared to observe it. The opportunity to gleam some important data was lost.

When the next transit of Venus occurred in 1639 (they usually come in pairs eight years apart, then again after 105 or 122 years), it was seen by two astronomers in England, who then took a stab at measuring part of the solar system.

Because these two Englishmen observed the transit from slightly different angles (from villages about 40 kilometers apart), Venus appeared to each to take a slightly different path across the sun.

From this, they could use fairly basic geometry to calculate the distance of Northern England from that big yellow orb in the sky. The resulting estimate of almost 60 million miles (97 million kilometers) was way off the mark, though closer to the actual distance of 93 million miles (150 million km) than anyone had come up with previously. 

An early observation of a transit of Venus, 1639.
What was needed for a more accurate measurement was more and better observations, and from more widely separated spots on earth. That and, of course, another transit of Venus. This wasn’t scheduled to occur again until 1761 and 1769, by which time scientists around the world were ready. Astronomers were dispatched to such widely scattered places as Norway, Newfoundland and Madagascar to measure the transit on June 6, 1761.

Two of those taking part in this international effort were English astronomers by the names of Mason and Dixon, who successfully observed the transit from the Cape of Good Hope. This pair went on to gain wider fame by accurately marking the southern limits of the colony of Pennsylvania. This more down-to-earth feat led to one of their names, in the form of Dixie, being applied to such diverse items as disposable paper cups, an all-girl country band, a type of jazz, not to mention a large part of the future United States where I come from.

For the next transit, eight years later, some astronomers traveled even further afield. The Royal Society of London organized an expedition to the amazingly agreeable destination of Tahiti, which had been “discovered” by an Englishman only two years before. The very able James Cook, a master navigator and mapmaker, was picked to lead the voyage, the first of his three explorations of the Pacific.

I love the idea of an expedition setting out on three-year journey to exotic parts of the world just to observe a single brief celestial event with no other purpose than the advancement of pure science. I would have signed up for that trip in an instant.

Aboriginals encountering 
Cook's men in 1770.
But, there was a second, secret and slightly less noble, though just as romantic, "assignment for Cook. The British Admiralty instructed him to search for Terra Australis Incognito before returning home to England. This mythical continent was rumored to exist in the far reaches of the southern ocean and would have made an epic addition to the British Empire.

After leaving Tahiti, Cook spent a year sailing around and mapping New Zealand, proving it was a pair of islands and not part of any legendary continent. He also discovered the eastern coast of Australia, ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, and observed original Australians and their habits, which included cooking shellfish on the beach, apparently an ancient Ozzie custom that has now been elevated (or reduced?) to a fun-loving cliche.

He, however, did not succeed in his secret task of finding a gigantic landmass in the vastness of the South Pacific, the original mission did contribute to a much-improved measurement of our solar system.

Next week’s transit will be another opportunity for scientists somewhere to gather data. For us laypeople it will be just a chance to watch Venus obscure a small part of the sun. That is if our slice of the sky is not obscured by clouds.

Of course, no one can safely view it without proper eye protection. I’m hoping to use the safety glasses handed out to us by Air France back in 1999 on a flight to Paris from the States that was landing just as a total solar eclipse sweep across the City of Light.

The transit should be visible in Finland beginning at one a.m. Wednesday morning (three hours before sunrise in Helsinki) and lasts until almost eight. I hope I can catch some of it. It would be a shame not to. Something tells me I won’t be around for the next one in 2117.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Last week we applied for a new passport for my daughter, which required a visit to the US Consulate here in Helsinki. Though her current passport expired last summer, we decided to hold off on applying for a new one until she turned 16, a few months ago.

There were some concrete benefits to waiting. As a 16-year-old, she now gets a passport valid for 10 years, like the rest of us grownups, rather than the five-year passports issued to kids.

Less crucial, but still an advantage, is the fact that since my daughter is now “of age”, we parents are not needed for application purposes. Prior to this, both my wife (who is not a US citizen) and I needed to make an appearance at the US Consulate in five years intervals to renew each of our children’s passports.

The sad rationale (as I believe) for the policy of both parents showing up is to ensure one who is a US citizen and facing the breakup of his or her marriage can’t impulsively arrange travel documents for the kids and sneak them out of the country without the other parent’s knowledge. This is an extremely heartbreaking risk of transnational marriages, and it does happen.

Some ten years ago, there were a couple of widely publicized cases of such parental child abductions in the opposite direction, with Finnish mothers refusing to return their American-Finnish children to the US. Fighting over who gets to keep the kids in a divorce is bad enough, but it can be made even uglier because of dual citizenship, which is otherwise usually a win-win arrangement for those who have it. 

All my children are dual US and Finnish citizens. Though they were born here in Helsinki, they were also born American thanks to US law, which grants citizenship to the children of native-born Americans who live abroad. (Donald Trump, take note: Barack Obama would be a US citizen, even if he had been born – against all evidence – in Kenya, and not Hawaii.)

To certify the citizenship of their children, expat Americans need to obtain a “Consular Report of Birth” from the US State Department. Soon after each of our children were born, we schlepped down to the US Embassy, taking with us various documentation (Finnish birth certificate, marriage license, etc.), and of course the actual baby in question, in order to apply for the report of birth and a passport.

When I first came to Finland, a visit to the US Consulate was a simple affair. The American diplomatic mission to Finland occupies a small campus of mostly Georgian-style buildings on the edge of Kaivopuisto, a scenic park overlooking the sea and islands off Helsinki’s southern shore. I distinctly remember on my first visits there driving into the complex and parking right outside the front door of the gray, gabled Consulate building.

Those were more innocent times. Things started to change after the 1983 suicide bombing that killed 241 US servicemen in Lebanon. Security at the Helsinki embassy, as I’m sure with all US missions, became tighter over the years following that, and after 9/11 became extremely rigorous. Sadly, a visit to the Consulate nowadays is a grim reminder of the potential threats oversea Americans face, though such worries are not something that ordinarily intrudes on our lives.
Photo credit: Noble

Today, while the Embassy complex in Kaivopuisto is undergoing extensive renovation, the Consulate is operating out of a temporarily location in downtown, which means security is even tighter than normal, if that’s possible.

Still, it’s a relatively busy place. Once my daughter and I found it and got through the security check, we shared the waiting room with three people seeking US visas:  a Helsinki-based African scholar and two 16-year-old Finnish girls off to spend a year as high school exchange students in Idaho and Massachusetts.

After a relatively short wait (I can remember some interminable waits on previous visits), the whole thing went smoothly and we were done. The Consulate staff was, as you would expect, business-like, but also really pretty friendly. Interacting with the other Americans there was a bit like briefly being back home in the States – which, in a sense, it was.

Still, I’m not unhappy about not having to return there any time soon. My daughter will get her new passport by mail, hopefully before our upcoming trip to North America in a few weeks. Otherwise, she would have to travel on her Finnish passport and apply for a “visa waiver”.

Most Finns don’t need a visa to visit the US, because in effect they are granted a waiver. Before 1991, this was automatically granted upon arrival, on the basis of a form visitors could fill out on the plane. Simple. And free. Nowadays, they must obtain the waiver online before departing, at a cost of $14. That’s simpler than visiting the Consulate for an actual visa, and cheaper, but still a bit of a hassle for Finns traveling to the US.

It’s a small hassle my children can avoid, not to mention the longer lines and probing questions at immigration that non-citizens have to endure. That's one of the perks they, as dual citizens, enjoy along with all the other rights of Americans, though they’ve spent their entire lives in Finland. 

When my boys were young, however, I worried they might lose those rights when they turned 18. Finnish men of that age must register for military or civilian service, and according to the law at the time dual citizens joining the Finnish army had to give up their other citizenship. Thankfully, the law was changed before my sons had to choose between being Finnish or American. 

I would never give up my US citizenship myself, and have never much felt the need to take on Finnish citizenship. I have permanent residency here. I can come and go and work as I please. The only complication is that whenever I renew my passport, I need to have a new stamp added.

Lately I have been thinking that after being a resident for 25 or so odd years, maybe it’s time to apply for become a kansalainen as well. And maybe, just maybe, after a few months of cramming I could even pass the very daunting language exam required to apply. If not, it’s no big deal, since I’m perfectly happy with the citizenship I have.