Venus in Transit

I’ve just been to a park to look through a telescope at the Sun.

Now, this isn’t safe without serious filters in place, and normally you wouldn’t expect to see much more than a big ball of light even so – but today was the transit of Venus, a twice a century or so event in which our sunward neighbour passes directly between the Earth and the Sun. (While the last famous one was in 1874 – people sailed to Australia to see it – they come in pairs: there was a transit in 2004, though most of it wasn’t visible in Australia. The next ones are in 2117 and 2125.) So today, thanks to the sterling work of Stephen Luntz and some uncharacteristic breaks in Melbourne’s cloud cover, I looked at a fairly large dot moving very slowly across the bright disc of the sun. That dot, though our nearest planet, was 41 million kilometres or so away. Blows your mind just a little, right?

To mark the occasion, Stephen gathered a small collection of poets, musicians and one comedian (guess who?) to perform to the gathered astronomy enthusiasts. Rather than do my usual gear about black holes, climate change or dinosaurs, I thought I’d share some of my favourite FUN FACTS! about Venus, and I’ve gathered them here for your pleasure.

Venus, like Mercury, has no moons, but orbitally, it’s a bit of a show off. Not only is its orbit the closest of any solar planet to a circle (they’re all elliptical, but Venus’ is the least elliptical), but it rotates on its axis in the opposite direction to its travel around the Sun. All the planets travel anti-clockwise around the Sun, but Venus and Uranus rotate clockwise. This means that on Venus, the Sun would rise in the West and set in the East – good luck for Daenerys and Drogo. A day there is incredibly long, the longest in the solar system: it rotates on its axis only once every 243 Earth days! Plus, a Venusian year is shorter than a Venusian day, at only 224.65 Earth days – and you thought Mondays at the office were long! Thanks to the backwards (astronomers say “retrograde”) rotation and shorter year, this works out to a solar day (i.e. how long the sun is in the sky) of around 116.75 Earth days, sunrise to sunset.

Venus is thus clearly the best planet for lovers, since you could hold hands and watch the sunset for weeks on end, and wouldn’t have to get up early to see it! Well…okay, you can’t. Venus has worse weather than Melbourne. Or even London. The atmosphere is incredibly dense – at the surface, the atmosphere is 92 times denser than on the surface of Earth. Not very comfortable! The cloud cover is constant, so the surface isn’t visible from orbit. Likewise, you can’t see anything in the sky; it’s like the planet of the Krikkitmen. No sunrises for you, Venusian honeymooners!

But even though you can’t get a tan, you will at least be nice and warm; with the atmosphere made up of 96.5% CO2 (the rest is mostly Nitrogen), the greenhouse effect is extreme on Venus, producing the hottest temperatures of any planet in the solar system, but with enormous range. Venus can be anything from -200°c to 420°c. That’s really hard to pack for.

On the surface, when you can see it – using special cameras from orbital missions – you can see evidence of amazing volcanic activity. Many formations are distinctive of Venus, including ones shaped like circles, stars, pancakes and spiderwebs. There’s no ocean any more – the effect of extreme global warming, which goes poles melt, seas rise, ocean evaporates – but there are two “continents” which stand taller than the surrounding plains. The larger one in the north is named Ishtar, and the southern one Aphrodite. Yes, that’s like naming a continent on Earth “Soil”, but there are rules about these things. The IAU, which oversees the naming of astronomical objects, decided that all geographic features of Venus should be named after mythological women. It’s a nice theme, but one that is broken by one of the first features to be named: Maxwell Montes, the tallest mountain on Venus, is named for Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the guy behind classic electromagnetic theory. Yes: the biggest phallic object on the planet is named after an actual man, and its surrounded by goddesses and saints and mythical heroines. (There are only two other male-named features on Venus, both named before the IAU rule was established.)

But as well as being physically interesting, Venus is also fictionally interesting. Though traditionally much less popular in science fiction than Mars, there are two distinct phases in Venusian literature. In the early days of planetary romance and pulpy science fiction, Venus was thought to be a swampy, marshy place; at the same time, the prevailing view of dinosaurs was that they were immense, slow creatures which could only live in swamps.

You can see where this is going, right?

Yes, lots of Venusian tales populated the surface with dinsosaur-like creatures. Or in some cases, actual dinosaurs. As if there was a global conspiracy and they weren’t extinguished in the KT event, but instead migrated en masse, like Adamsian dolphins, leaving fossils behind as a final message of “so long and thanks for all the cycads”. But Venus has also been populated with giant spiders, and – as usual – people who are basically human but in a weird colour (aside from the standard green, the popular colour for Venusians seems to have been blue).

But I’d like to finish with one of my favourite, and most obscure, Venusian references. During his Action Scientist! days working with UNIT, the Third Doctor (John Pertwee) was a master of a martial art he called “Venusian Aikido”. He claimed he was one of only a few beings with four limbs to master the art, but more than that, he would often tell anecdotes of his Venusian friends – who we never met or even had described. But the best bit is the lullaby he learned on Venus, which he sings to soothe Aggedor, the savage beast of Peladon:

Klokeda partha menin klatch
Haroon, haroon, haroon
Klokeda sheenah tierra natch
Haroon, haroon, haroon

It’s all a setup for a gag: when asked, the Doctor claims the first line translates roughly to “Close your eyes, my darling; well three of them at least!” (Much later, in his “Missing Adventures” novel Venusian Lullaby, Paul Leonard fleshed out the Venusian society: turns out that have fivefold radial symmetry (and thus five limbs and five eyes) and can absorb the memories of their dead by eating their brains. I love that book.)

So thanks Venus, thanks Stephen, and thanks to all the other amazing performers at the Transit of Venus event today. See you at the next one! Well, assuming we’ve all uploaded our consciousnesses in iCloud before then, anyway.


  1. Bravo Ben on a terrific post, and nice meeting you today (you on the bike, our mutual friend Bernard Caleo waxing lyrical). For another fun fact about the Transit of Venus, see the article I cited on my blog about the ill-fated attempt by Guillaume Le Gentil to see the eighteenth century transits:

    • Ben says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Angela – and for the great story! The history of science is full of adventure and misfortune. I think that’s why I love it! Hopefully I’ll see you at the next event.

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