Cheering on the Transit of Venus at Varsity Stadium, University of Toronto

Dr. Michael Reid

Director of Outreach and Education,

Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

University of Toronto

June 19, 2012

 

On June 5th, the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, hosted what was by far our largest outreach event yet, with over five thousand people packed into the university’s Varsity Stadium to watch the transit of Venus. After a morning of changeable weather, the afternoon skies cleared and everyone had a perfect view of the last transit they would see in their lifetimes.

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Figure 1: Spectators watch the Sun through their Dunlap Institute transit glasses.

 

Visitors to the event viewed the transit with free solar glasses that were handed out at the gate. They also watched through an array of telescopes set up on the stadium track, including a 10” Meade, two Questars, two Sunspotters, two H-alpha scopes, and many others. Transit-watchers could even use a nearly two-hundred-year old Gregorian reflector telescope from the university’s Scientific Instruments Collection—an instrument not unlike those used to observe the transits of 1761 and 1769. Plus, the crowd witnessed Venus and the Sun via streamed telescopic views from around the world on the stadium’s Jumbotron—including a view from the university’s own 8” refractor.

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Figure 2: Ernst de Mooij (right) demonstrates his H-alpha telescope.

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Figure 3: The view from the University of Toronto's 8" refractor on the stadium Jumbotron.

 

 

The event was a transit of Venus “three-ring circus.” Ernst De Mooij from the university’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics (DAA) presented a public talk on transits and exoplanets. We set up our portable planetarium in adjacent Varsity Arena for a series of sold-out shows. During the event, faculty and postdocs from the Dunlap Institute, the DAA, and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics wore “Ask Me. I’m an Astronomer!” buttons and answered visitors’ many questions. There was even a performance of one act from Canadian playwright Maureen Wright’s “The Transit of Venus”, a play that tells the story of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil.

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Figure 4: Kylah Thomson (left) and Maria Torriano (right) before their performance in "The Transit of Venus."

 

Despite the overwhelming crowd, the event was executed smoothly. This was in large part due to the more than sixty volunteers from the U of T astronomy community at the event. “Transit-palooza” surpassed our expectations both in terms of attendance and excitement. In addition to the actual transit, music, door prizes, quizzes, sponsors and engaging hosts all combined for a festive atmosphere that, at the same time, did nothing to prevent appreciation and understanding of the last transit of Venus for 105 years.

A Collaborative Effort

The success of the event was in large part the result of the collaborations between the Dunlap Institute and many partners within the university—before and during the June 5th event. On April 28th, the Dunlap Institute and the university’s Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology co-hosted a transit of Venus symposium. The symposium provided the broader astronomical community, educators and the media with the information they needed in order to prepare for the transit. The symposium agenda featured an array of experts speaking on different aspects of the transit, including: history, the U of T’s Scientific Instruments Collection, current transit-related research, the educational opportunity provided by the transit, and safe solar viewing.

The university’s Alumni Relations (AR) Office was one of our most important partners. They provided invaluable support throughout the planning stages of the event and helped secure a discount on the rental of the stadium. As well, AR promoted the event to hundreds of thousands U of T alumni. The transit followed closely on the heels of AR’s Spring Reunion and coincided with the start of three weeks of convocation ceremonies.

The Alumni Office also emphasized the importance of pre-registration for the event, despite the fact we did not charge to attend. (There was a nominal fee for planetarium shows.) Watching registration grow as June 5th approached allowed us to gauge the burgeoning interest and plan accordingly. It also allowed us to track day-to-day registration; spikes in registration coincided with communications with alumni, proving the value of that partnership.

Partnerships extended beyond the university as well. For example, the Dunlap Institute printed approximately 43,000 pairs of transit glasses at a cost of about $10,000 and distributed them at no cost; the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Fédération des Astronomes Amateurs du Québec helped in distributing the glasses. The RASC and the FAAQ supplied glasses to their local centres, while the Dunlap Institute distributed to universities. The items were hugely popular and, as June 5th approached, were in greater and greater demand. (The FAAQ also helped by translating our accompanying brochure and safety information into French.)

Outreach That Reaches Out

Despite the cultural richness of Toronto, we don’t always see that diversity reflected in the audiences at our outreach events. In an attempt to make the Varsity Stadium event a culturally-inclusive gathering, we produced promotional materials in ten languages. Subsequently, we sent the Arabic version of our brochure to a local Islamic school that had recently taken part in one of our outreach initiatives. They distributed the material widely and, as a result, the school hired buses and brought their students to the stadium.

In the weeks leading up to June 5th, we also conducted sidewalk astronomy sessions at a variety of downtown locations. The sessions took place over the lunch hour, ensuring that passers-by who participated were people likely to be downtown near the time of the transit. The response to our sidewalk astronomy sessions was overwhelming and we often ran out of materials to hand out. People called friends and co-workers on their cell phones, encouraging them to come out and look at the Sun through our telescope. We also tweeted the locations of the days’ session and posted them on Facebook.

The outreach initiative also surpassed our expectations in terms of the increase in awareness of the Dunlap Institute and its partners. Publicity began with the symposium, intensified as the transit approached and registrations grew, and reached fever pitch on June 4th and 5th. Media coverage was extensive through both local and national news outlets, on television, radio, in print and online—from virtually all major broadcasters. At the event itself, there was no shortage of TV crews broadcasting live spots, or putting together stories for the late-night news.

 

The success of the transit of Venus at Varsity Stadium event is extremely encouraging and we at the Dunlap Institute look forward to organizing comparable outreach initiatives in the future. With the same collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach across and beyond the university, we are confident we don’t have to wait 105 years to generate the same excitement, participation and engagement.