So we got up at an unearthly hour, walked sleepily to Greenwich Park, and found that though the park opens at 06:00, the gates to the park don't (well one does -- the south gate -- but that was a long way from us). So in an unaccustomed gesture of defiance (and something not completely unakin to athleticism) I climbed over the gate, and so did Nancy (blessing her Saki Saki trainers as she did so -- not only the coolest footwear ever, but also practical). So we got up to the observatory a good ten minutes before the first contact, to find a fair crowd in the courtyard and a lot of media (apparently Colin P was there, but I didn't see him). Christine McGourty of the BBC kindly gave us a spare set of eyewear so we could both stare at the sun with impunity, and we proceeded to do so. (That said, while proper glasses make it possible, the sheer heat of the proposition still makes staring at the summer sun uncomfortable, even early in the morning. I guess all the people who spend good money to lie on beaches glistening with sweat with their eyes shut behind normal dark glasses don't mind about this. Seems pretty damn unpleasant to me.)
The powers of suggestion are a wonderful thing. Once the people with the 'scopes were shouting "first contact" it was quite possible to start imagining that there was something a little odd happening around the seven o'clock mark. And after a while there really was something a little odd happening around the seven o'clock mark. Where the imagining left off and the reality took over, though, I wouldn't have liked to say. Suffice to say that eventually there was a genuine dot there. A tiny planet-sized dot.
A transit of Venus turns out to be the most unspectacular spectacular event you will ever see (if you contrive to be alive during one of the relevant opportunities). If your previous experience of looking at the sun has been an eclipse, there is almost literally nothing to see here. (I think the disc of Venus passing across the sun is 1,000 times smaller than the disc of the moon, but don't take my word for it.) And yet it's spectacular to the mind, if not the eye. It is roughly speaking the closest to another planet we will ever get. I don't know if transits involve a closer passage than normal conjunctions -- I have an intuitive feel that they might, but don't trust intuition on such things -- but the actual distance is only part of the nearness. More important is seeing the planet resolved as a disk, rather than a point, with our naked eyes, which is strangely affecting. Something as big as our whole world, so small to the eye, and yet so near, cosmically speaking.
It's the only planet-as-a-disc I ever expect to see. The next opportunity for such a sight (after the 2012 transit) will be backward glances from people off to the moon, and that's not a trip i expect many if any of us to be taking. If anyone reading this does ends up past geosynchronous orbit, please send me an email.
Back in the here and now it was a more-or-less unique chance to actually see the solar system at work. Nancy, who is more patient than me, watched from our back roof long enough to experience a sense of the planet's movement, a tiny enlightening shadow acting like part of an orrery. I looked up, on and off, while going about daily business; and I greatly enjoyed having the eyewear with which to show the butcher and the cheesemonger and the greengrocer what was up in the sky. So the morning was punctuated with brief moments of shared amazement as something 41 million kilometres away crawled from A to B.
Around noon, back up to the observatory. A few last looks through the hydrogen-alpha-filtered telescope provided by the excellent Flamsteed Society, the sun angry red, its edge delicately frilled with prominences. And then it went away, never to be seen like this again, from here, in our lives.