Why does Valentine’s Day come around in the glumly frigid pit of the year? Perhaps to remind us that contact with other mammals increases mutual warmth, besides stimulating serotonin or whatever the chemical is that (“studies show”) cheers us up.
This time last year, Venus was in the morning sky. Now the planet of love is more conspicuous, and more conveniently so, in the evening.
Venus in this picture is nearly 30° above the horizon, and is at greatly enlarged size to show its crescent shape. The arrows through the moving bodies, including the Sun, show their movement on the map of the sky from two days before to two days after the date.
Venus is hurrying around toward us.
This space view shows the planets’ paths in February, and sightlines from Earth to them on Valentine Day. The dashed line is the vernal equinox direction (longitude 0°), which happens to be our direction of view for this picture.
There’s a pronoun-dilemma in referring to Venus: be arch and say “she” or be sober and say “it”? The planet, far from being a garden of delight, is a hell of hot poisonous fog, and I find the anthropomorphizing, or theomorphizing, rapidly cloys, but I’ll make an exception for this amorous occasion in the year.
She, then, Venus, is going through a succession of celebratory moments. She was at greatest elongation east, 47.2° from the Sun. on Jan. 17; will show her greatest illuminated extent (largest angular area that we see sunlit) on Feb. 17; is brightest, at magnitude -4.6, on Feb. 18.
Some have asked why these climaxes don’t coincide – why, for instance, is Venus not brightest when its – her – angular extent is largest? The answer, briefly, is that they are found by equations that take into account an array of changing quantities: not only distance from us and from the Sun, and angular extent, but phase angle (the angle Sun-Venus-Earth).
All this happens at stages of Venus’s curve around and in, to pass widely north of the Sun (inferior conjunction) on March 25.
And you can see from the space diagram that Venus’s out-swing almost resulted in a conjunction with Mars. However, the closest they came was on Feb. 2; then, as the sky scene shows, Venus started moving east more slowly than Mars – began falling away toward the Sun.
She sometimes kisses Mars, sometimes fails to catch him. As you’ll recall, Venus was married to Vulcan, the lame smith god, but had a fling with Mars. Vulcan caught them at it – flung over them an entangling net that he had devised, and fetched boss Jupiter to witness the couple’s guilt. The depiction of this scene in an engraving by Daumier is perfect, but I can’t find the copy of it that I had and I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to see it very clearly here
so I’m going to have to spoil the joke by describing it. Under the net, Venus smirks and Mars (still wearing his helmet) scowls; Vulcan is shouting his denunciation – “Look, Sire, can you believe it!” – to judicious Jupiter, behind whose back the other gods are grinning.
(Postscript-interscript: Roger Taft has been able to send me a better reproduction of the Daumier print, whose correct title is “Mars et Vénus.”)
But the old pantheon has gone into retirement, leaving us wih a few demigods such as Santa Claus and Valentine, about whom we can find more to say.
My friend by correspondence Chet Raymo wrote a historical novel about Valentine, which may still be available.
The name Ballentine or Ballantine is not, apparently, a variant of Valentine, but comes from Scottish forms like Bannatyne and MacAmeltyne, which may have been from the name of an ancient fire god.
And then there were
Those two little pals of mine,
Ramadhin and Valentine
– in the words of “Cricket, Lovely Cricket,” sung in their honor. They were the surprise heroes of the West Indies team that for the first time defeated England, in the test match of 1950: Sonny Ramadhin from Trinidad and, from Jamaica, Alf Valentine. These two previously unknown young fellows, slow crafty spin bowlers, entangled the lordly English batsmen in a web rather like Vulcan’s. And I can’t help adding that this “Victory Calypso” seems to have begun on the last day of the match as an improvization by Lord Kitchener, was later recorded by Lord Beginner, another of the West Indian immigrants to Britain; a chorus supplies the refrain “Ramadhin and Valentine.” And that it started a flowering of cricket calypso; and that Ramadhin was the first of a series of great West Indian cricketers of East Indian ancestry; and that he never had a forename. His birth certificate recorded just a “Boy,” hence he became just “Sonny.” I hope that doesn’t give you ideas about why I’m called “Guy.”