Friday, July 07, 2017

Autobiographical reminiscence: the phases of Venus

As a child, I loved stargazing, and this was a pretty easy thing to do growing up on a farm. We had constellation charts that were stored in the bottom shelf of the glass-fronted bookcase in the sitting room, and I learned to locate and name them. I think the charts may have come from Weekly Times special offers, which was how we acquired a Readers Digest atlas. (The Weekly Times was a newspaper devoted to rural issues).

The constellation of Andromeda
Of course the names were often figures from Greek and Roman mythology: Orion, Andromeda, Gemini, Perseus, etc. Among the books in the glass-fronted bookcase were volumes of classical mythology retold for popular consumption, which I devoured; and it only now occurs to me that the constellations united the stars and ancient civilisations in my mind. Perhaps it was not so illogical to love both astronomy and archaeology.

Venus was always my favourite planet. Not only was it the brightest thing in the firmament after the Moon, but Aphrodite seemed like a much more interesting goddess than any of the others - even Athene. I might have been a bookworm, but I wasn't giving up the allure of the flesh on that account. And of course, Venus is the only female planet to identify with.

My friend Ged remembers me pointing out Venus in the dawn sky when I was staying over on her parent's property, in primary school days. Something puzzled me, though. I had read of how the ancient Babylonian astronomers charted the phases of Venus (this may have been in one of my archaeology kid's books, or an encyclopedia). For the life of me, I couldn't see how this could be done. They didn't have telescopes, and I couldn't see any bloody phases. I never asked anyone about this; well, country NSW wasn't exactly crawling with astronomers, and there was no internet then.

In 6th grade, at the age of 10, it came to my mother's attention that I was short-sighted, and probably had been the whole time. I'd just developed strategies to make up for the fact that I couldn't read the blackboard at school, and it never occurred to me that everyone didn't experience the world like this. So I was duly taken away to get glasses. Suddenly, my father's hitherto mysterious ability to identify the species of a flying bird was revealed. I had thought him terribly clever because he clearly could distinguish between flying styles. Now I realised he could actually see them.

Ah, I thought. So this was how the Babylonian astronomers did it. They could see the phases of Venus without the benefit of modern telescopes.

It was now much easier to tell the difference between the stars and planets as the telltale twinkling was more obvious, and I could at last see the rabbit on the Moon.

However, this new sight was both a blessing and a curse. Glasses cemented a certain reputation captured by Dorothy Parker's famous aphorism: Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. Being seen as smart was antithetical to being seen as desirable, the pinnacle of a woman's achievement. Athene was taking ascendency over Aphrodite as the contradictions and constraints of being a teenage girl were ushered in with high school life.

Another phase of Venus was about to begin.