The Heavenly & the Disturbing

Venus’s Last Trip Across the Sun (in a
Century) & the Annual Dead Duck Day

It’s not unusual for two scientifically relevant events to happen in the same day. But while the transit of Venus in front of the Sun is the rarest of the two, the anniversary of Dead Duck Day packs a surprisingly, chock-full-of-meanings punch.
Venus won’t be seen in this neck of the Solar System before everybody alive today, and probably their immediate children, will be long dead. But what happened to a dead duck, 17 years ago, has became the holy grail to a whole branch of animal behavior research.
Beyond sharing the same date, though, these events have little else in common. But as astronomers and biologists expect to learn a bit more about the orbits of heavenly bodies and the life of mallard ducks, we should all benefit from their insights.
Before we too learn something about what’s happening today in the sky, where thousands will be tracking the rendezvous of Venus with the Sun, and at least in the Netherlands, where those fateful ducks met, a few words of caution.
First, about the Sun. The tragic Greek hero Icarus perished because his feather and wax wings melted as he flew too close to it. Well, for us, flightless mortals, we can’t even look at the Sun. So protect your eyes if you want to see Venus, or you’ll go blind.
Also, the tale about the ducks is only disturbing because some may believe that the violent, the lurid and the plain morbid are human-only discretionary attributes. Let’s be unequivocal about that: those who think as such are wrong, period.

Not to go Mormon on you here, but Romans considered Venus a ‘sister planet’ to Earth, naming it after their Goddess of Love. Lovers (and Astrologers) have been mooning about it ever since, even though it’s second to, well, the Moon as the night’s brightest object.
It has something else in common with love: it’s a very complicated planet, albeit a close one. It orbits the Sun every 243-earthly years, and it’s seen crossing the Sun at intervals of eight years, 121.5 years, eight years, and 105.5 years.
Such pattern, though, has happened only since 1518, and in 800 years, it’ll change again. Longer than most relationships, we give you that, but still hard to follow. Nevertheless, such rare transits have been crucial to determine distances within the Solar System.
Boldface names of astronomy were involved in determining Venus’s phases and transit, such as Galileo Galilei, Johanes Kepler, Jeremiah Hadocks and Edmond Halley, who devised a way to measure how far the Sun and planets are from Earth, in the transit of 1761.
That’s when over 170 scientists observed Venus crossing the Sun from different locations around the world, which helped the accuracy of their calculations. More observations came in the 1800s but as it goes, there was no transit in the 20th century.

We’re lucky as we’ve already had one this century, in 2004, and can resort to better ways of establishing interplanetary distances than those distinguished pioneers. Apart from that, there’s a new goal astronomers would like to pursue: search for alien life.
If not life just yet, at least for suitable planets able to sustain it the way we like it: not too close and not too far from their mother star. Not on sister Venus, of course, but in other worlds that can be measured while it crosses the Sun.
Currently, there’s the aptly named Kepler Space Telescope aloft, that’s already found over 1,300 potential life-friendly habitats, just by observing wobbles in the position of stars, possibly induced by the gravity of orbiting planets.
It’s still an imperfect method, as the search tends to yield too many planets that are too big and too close to their stars, the so-called Hot Jupiters. But as the technique is fine tuned, we’re bound to find more Earth-like bodies out there.
Statistically, it’s a given; there are way too many stars in the universe, even if one considers the narrow definition of life as we know it, to support much smaller rocks than these gas giants. So we may soon find out that we’re not that special after all.
Another objective astronomers are hoping to accomplish with today’s observations will be a better understanding of the now extremely active 11-year sunspot cycle, a phenomenon strong enough to disturb telecommunications on our planet.
Last warning: even the orbital space observatory Hubble cannot look directly at the Sun, and neither should you, despite you looking so cool wearing those (probably knockoff) Ray-Bans you’ve found on 14th Street.

Again, homosexual behavior and acts of necrophilia are not unusual in the Animal Kingdom, and neither is rape. And it’s not because some are raised on Broadway musicals, or Gothic tales of Edgard Alan Poe, or even in an environment of sexual violence.
But ‘on June 5, 1995, an adult male mallard collided with the glass façade of the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam and died.’ Right after, ‘another drake mallard raped the corpse almost continuously for 75 minutes,’ according to biologist C.W. (Kees) Moeliker.
Dissection revealed that ‘the rape-victim indeed was of the male sex, and that the two ‘were engaged in an ‘Attempted Rape Flight,’ that resulted in the first reported case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard species.
Whereas rape, either in mid-flight or on the ground, by one or more aggressors, is also not uncommon, it’s usually directed at females, poor things. But it’s the combination of the three factors what represented a turning point in the study of mallard ducks.
Dr. Moeliker’s research paper was honored with the 2003 Ig Noble Award of biology, by Improbable Research, a serious science-oriented organization, with a knack for the unusual and the tongue-in-cheek.

The Dead Duck Day will be celebrated today at the same museum in the Netherlands, at 5:55pm, local time, which is exactly when, 17 years ago, the first duck met his untimely death and ‘he’ and his aggressor were inscribed in the history and research books.
As in previous years, ‘the historic stuffed necro-duck will be at the event,’ which will include a full agenda of presentations and will be followed by a Chinese (don’t ask) six-course duck meal.
Last year, for example, such agenda included a ‘reenactment of the duck’s collision with the museum building, and the subsequent train of events.’ So, this year too, paraphrasing the Beatles, a ‘splendid (and instructive) time is guaranteed for all.’

2 thoughts on “The Heavenly & the Disturbing

  1. It’s wonderful that you are getting ideas from this piece of writing as well as from our discussion made here.


  2. Not to go all Mormon on you, but that was a fun read. lol


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