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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 June, 2004, 08:56 GMT 09:56 UK
Celebrating Horrocks' half hour
By Paul Burnell
BBC News Online

Jeremiah Horrocks - courtesy of Astley Hall,Chorley,part of Horrocks exhibtion
Horrocks said the transit was a "most agreeable spectacle"
It was one of the most important half hours in scientific history but it could have been easily dashed by the Lancashire climate in December 1639.

Jeremiah Horrocks' first prediction and charting of the transit of Venus across the Sun revolutionised astronomy.

But it all hinged on his being able to observe the phenomenon from his telescope in the village of Much Hoole.

The 20-year-old genius had to wait through a day of indifferent weather for his first glimpse of the Sun.

Never look directly at Sun with naked eye or though a camera, binoculars or similar device

Scientists hope that unlike Horrocks they will have six hours of summer sun on Tuesday 8 June to view the transit of Venus.

The celestial rarity takes place twice in eight years every 122 years.

In 2012, it will not be visible from the UK so Much Hoole becomes the centre of international scientific attention next week as more than 100 astronomers from around the globe descend on the village.

Dr Robert Walsh
To put it in current terms, it was as if one of my students had written to Stephen Hawking proving him wrong
Dr Robert Walsh
Staff at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) are delighted they have been chosen to coordinate the UK's observations of the phenomenon - especially because of their proximity to Much Hoole.

Carr House, where Horrocks observed the event from his bedroom, will be the centre of UCLAN's operations with the scientists getting a chance to view the passage from that very same room.

"This is very, very special to be able to see it as he would have seen it," said Dr Robert Walsh, senior Lecturer from UCLAN's Centre for Astrophysics.

Horrocks saw the Sun breakthrough around 3.15pm, just half an hour before it was due to set on 24 November (the modern date would be 6 December).

'Divine interposition'

During that period he made three accurate observations as the black dot of Venus moved across the face of the Sun - calculating its size with the path and speed of its orbit.

As the devout Christian recalled: "The clouds, as if by divine interposition, were entirely dispersed, and I was once more invited to the grateful task of repeating my observations.

"I then beheld a most agreeable spectacle, the object of my sanguine wishes... I could scarcely have wished for a more extended period."

The Cambridge educated farmer's son from Toxteth, Liverpool, had made a major leap in astronomy, as Dr Walsh explained.

"In a simple backwater, using home made equipment, he increased our knowledge of the Solar System by a factor of 15," he said.

The great astronomer Johannes Kepler had been the first to predict a Venus transit, in 1631 (which was not visible from Europe), but he did not predict the one that came in 1639.

Dr Walsh said: "To put it in current terms, it was as if one of my students had written to Stephen Hawking proving him wrong."

Village celebrations

Along with scientists, students and school children, Much Hoole villagers are also celebrating with a whole series of events including viewing the transit in a marquee with strawberries and cream.

St Michael's parish church which is the hub of the village's celebrations has even unveiled a stained glass window commemorating Horrocks.

"He is not a household name as Newton and Halley are, but only because he died so young, aged 22," said the village celebrations patron Sir Patrick Moore.

And Jeremiah Horrocks' great co-worker William Crabtree is also being honoured in his native Salford.

Transit of Venus sketch - courtesy of Astley Hall,Chorley,part of Horrocks exhibtion
A sketch showing the transit of Venus from 1769
A nameplate is to be unveiled in Broughton on Wednesday at the junction of Lower Broughton Road and Priory Grove, thought to be the site of Crabtree's home at the time he worked with Horrocks.

Horrocks wrote of Crabtree that he "was gratified by beholding the pleasing spectacle of Venus upon the Sun's disc. Rapt in contemplation, he stood for some time motionless, scarcely trusting his own senses, through an excess of joy."

Those who want to view the "pleasing spectacle" need to read guidelines issued by the university for safe viewing.

The safest way to be "rapt in contemplation" is to watch it via a webcast or on BBC One.

Whatever way you choose to view, however, Tuesday may be just a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Although there is another transit in 2012, the next one to be visible from the UK will be in 2117.

METHOD 1: Cut two holes in card for binocular eye-pieces. Push card onto binoculars and fix with tape. Block one lens (with lens cap, for example). Holding binoculars at waist height, angle towards Sun - do not look through them. Move binoculars around until card shadow minimised on viewing surface (piece of white card best). During six-hour transit, move set-up to follow path of Sun across sky, for example by mounting it on tripod or chair.
METHOD 2: Take piece of stiff card and pierce with pin. Hold it up and, looking away from the Sun, adjust angle of card until shadow minimised. Pinhole will project image of Sun into middle of shadowed area. Place another piece of card under shadow and adjust distance to get best picture - more distance gives larger but fainter image. Hole must be clean and as small as possible.
WARNING: Never observe the Sun with the naked eye or telescope, camera or other optical device. Doing so will seriously damage eyesight and may lead to permanent blindness.


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