Venus changes courts

A game ends and the player walks around the net so as to play the next game from the other end. She is, let’s say, Venus Williams of the U.S.A., playing against Marion Bartoli of France in 2007. That match, I’ve just read, holds a record among Wimbledon finals in that it was between the two lowest “seeds” ever: Williams was seeded 23 and Bartoli 18, and the situation had arisen because Bartoli had defeated the top seed, Justine Henin of Belgium, in the semifinal. Williams won 6-4 6-1, and also won the Wimbledon final on other occasions (as did Henin and Bartoli), but when she played against her sister Serena she lost more often than not.

I had to look this stuff up because it’s been long since I followed tennis news. I used to be keen on it, but lost interest after Wimbledon was opened to players who had turned professional and thus won boringly often, whereas I wanted them to be an unpredicted mixture, especially if they had relishable names or were from unlikely countries (Jaroslav Drobny, representing Egypt); and after it became so popular, which may have been a related development. I had loved to play tennis, too, and had a fine style with a sculptural backhand but no great will to win, later had fewer chances to play, and my habit of playing barefoot was a handicap on roasting hot surfaces in California.

Venus, the planet, has been serving from the morning sky – perhaps losing that game, in other words not standing so high and bright as she can. (See the Venus scenes on page 69 of Astronomical Calendar 2014). Venus is often thought of as “lost” when in the morning sky, as she has been for most of this year. On the whole we are awake and outdoors more often in the evening, and all but madcap astrophiles are asleep in the pre-dawn hours; I’m in a phase of life where it’s the other way around – I’m out under the sky before dawn, and awake but inside at sunset – so I’ve been seeing a lot of Venus. She has been walking down toward the dividing net, the Sun (passing on October 17 an impudent ball-boy named Mercury skipping in the opposite direction), and on Oct. 25 crosses into the court of the evening. This is the date of the superior conjunction, when Venus travels around on the far side of the umpire sitting on his high chair, that is, the Sun.

At this superior conjunction Venus passes about a degree north of the Sun. In one of the years of the 8-year Venus cycle – as in June of 2000, 2008, and 2016 – the planet passes closely enough behind the far wider Sun that it is occulted, hidden, though this of course is academic: we cannot see it. Another curious thing about these superior conjunctions, also merely theoretical, is that Venus if we could see it would rise slightly in brightness, because of being full-face to us, like a little Full Moon.

The October Sun with Venus behind it is in eastern Virgo (Spica in the remote background a little to the west). By December Venus will be climbing quite rapidly. and by next May will be nearly 40 degrees above the sunset horizon and serving aces of light.

There is a tennis-player in the sky.


It’s easy to find the Pole Star by using the two end stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl as pointers, but at times when the Big Dipper is low it’s not so easy to use Cassiopeia, the prominent constellation on the other side of the north celestial pole. In the five stars of Cassiopeia’s W-shape, there is no line pointing toward the pole. So my suggestion is that the W forms the arms of a tennis player in the act of serving. The Pole Star is the ball she has thrown up. Evidently as it comes down she is going to smack it at high speed in the direction of Gemini.

(This is actually copied from the new edition of my children’s book, To Know the Stars, page 51.)


7 thoughts on “Venus changes courts”

  1. Pirate Jack, the tall ship we sailed to the Guadeloupe Channel in 1998 was the “Sir Francis Drake”. That old sea dog would give a belly-laugh to know he had been promoted to “Saint.” He was essentially a pirate on a large scale, like Elizabeth I’s other captains who harried the Spanish fleets to rob them of the gold they were carrying from the Americas.
    I like your idea of kidding people that they haven’t seen Venus till they can convince some other member pf the crowd that they have. I dub this the Gambino Gambit and recommend it as a teaching tactic to professors.

  2. I also like to imagine planets where they should be when I can’t see ’em.
    I don’t know how anyone else figures Casseopia’s figure, but I just see’em as two big boobs.
    Now to start looking for Venus in the evening sky.
    I love pointing Venus out in the daytime to inexperienced stargazers. When I finally get them to see V, I tell them they’re full of it until they can convince someone else to see it.
    Reminiscent of an eclipse journey on the St Francis Drake through the Caribean.
    Pirate Jack here, … Now get back to work or we’ll have to keel haul your butt. LOL

  3. Here’s how I use Cassiopeia to find the north star:

    Beta, Gamma, and Delta Cassiopeiae form a roughly straight line with Gamma in the middle. If you draw a perpendicular line northward from Gamma Cas, the first moderately bright star you get to is Polaris.

    I had to look up the Greek letter designations just now. Out under the sky, I recognize Beta, Gamma, and Delta as the first, third, and fourth of Cassiopeia’s five bright stars, starting from the brighter, tighter, western end of the zigzag. From the chart I see that they’re all about 60 degrees north declination and Gamma Cas is at almost exactly 1 hour right ascension.

    By the way, Venus was just north of the Moon and Sun during yesterday’s partial solar eclipse. She was lost in the glare of the Sun, but I enjoyed imagining that she may have been peering past the Sun and perhaps feeling a bit envious that she doesn’t have a Moon, and so never sees any eclipses.

    1. Yes, Beta, Gamma, and Delta form a roughly straight line because the W is tilted (really forming the “chair” to which the Greeks imagined wicked Cassiopeia strapped) so that they have about the same declination, which therefore means a perpendicular from them points straight north. And yes, because their middle (Gamma) has right ascension 1 hour, the tennis player will swat the Tennis Ball Star, I mean the Pole Star, in direction 90 degrees (=6 hours) to the left of this, that is, 7 hours, which is the middle of Gemini. We hope the nearer twin, Castor, is wearing something thick. It would be nice to find that Polaris is actually one of the “runaway” stars moving at high speed in relation to the local star neighborhood, and happens to be moving in Gemini’s direction, but I research this no more.
      Yes, the Cassiopeia stars are BAGDE (Beta, Alpha, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon) reading from right to left, that is, west to east, or the mnemonic can be EDGAB if you prefer reading from left to right, because Bayer gave them their Greek letters in order not of right ascension but of decreasing brightness (their magnitudes are 2.3, 2.2, 2.6, 2.8, 3.4, may be slightly different in different catalogs).
      And the same happens to be true of the five stars that form the curving crown of Corona Borealis – almost. That is, they are BAGDE from right to left, and that almost corresponds to their magnitudes, but D is a little fainter than E (3.7, 2.2, 3.9, 4.7, 4.2). It’s almost as if Bayer played a little game of forcing them to the same pattern.

      1. Thanks Guy. BAGDE is just close enough to “badge” to be confusing. Perhaps “bagde” is a word in German.

        1. To fill out the discussion of BAGDE, I should have pointed out that it is the first five letters of the Greek alphabet with just the first two reversed. The Greek alphabet goes alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta… The Semitic alphabets from which the Greek one descended started with aleph, beth, gimel. Gamma historically developed into our letter C. So BAGDE in a way corresponds to BACDE, which could confuse you even more.

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