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Looking Up At The Inauguration

I find value in a parallel between the Presidential Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. Yes, there is a similarity, and it is cause to look up.

In 1865, poet Walt Whitman observed President Lincoln on the day of his second inauguration. Lincoln "very quietly rode down to the Capitol in his own carriage by himself, on a sharp trot, about noon." Okay, Trump may be riding in a Lincoln, so no parallel there. But here comes the part that merits looking up.

A Sight For All

Sergeant Smith Stimmel, part of the President’s bodyguard detail on Inauguration Day, wrote:

Soon after the President concluded his address, he entered his carriage, and the procession started up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, the escort from our Company following next to his carriage. Shortly after we turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, west of the Capitol, I noticed the crowd along the street looking intently, and some were pointing to something in the heavens toward the south. I glanced up in that direction, and there in plain view, shining out in all her starlike beauty, was the planet Venus. It was a little after midday at the time I saw it, possibly near one o’clock; the sun seemed to be a little west of the median, the star a little east. It was a strange sight. I never saw a star at that time in the day before or since. The superstitious had had many strange notions about it, but of course it was simply owing to the peculiarly clear condition of the atmosphere and the favorable position of the planet at that time. The President and those who were with him in the carriage noticed the star at the same time.

[Source: , citing Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 71-72.]

Lincoln's view: Venus and the sun astride the southern meridian on Inauguration Day 1865.

The image above simulates the view from Washington, DC, at 1:00 p.m. during the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. The vertical green line marks the meridian for due south, with the exaggerated sun a little west (to the right) of the meridian, and star-like Venus a little east (to the left). Though labeled, Mercury to the sun's west is not bright enough to be seen in the daytime sky.

Another bodyguard corroborated the celestial report:

When Mr. Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, I had the privilege of standing within twenty feet of him....It had rained a great deal during the forenoon, and clouds overcast the sky as the presidential party and the Senate came out on the east portico. While the ceremonies were in progress the clouds suddenly parted, and, although it was about midday, Venus was seen clearly shining in the blue sky. The attention of the immense throng was directed to it. [Source:’s-second-inaugural, citing Robert W. McBride, Lincoln’s Body Guard, the Union Light Guard of Ohio: With Some Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis: Edward J. Hecker, 1911), 29–30.

Donald W. Olson cites other 1865 observations of Venus by the public in his book Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve Mysteries in Art, History and Literature. He notes the recent rains would have cleared the Washington, DC, skies of pollution, too. And Venus was near maximum elongation, its furthest angular distance from the sun.

Fast Forward to 2017

Now consider the celestial circumstances of Friday, January 20, 2017, the day of Donald Trump's Presidential Inauguration. The similarity to 1865 is striking, if only coincidental.

Venus and sun astride the southern meridian on Inauguration Day 2017

Once again, the vertical green line marks the meridian for due south, with the sun a little west of the meridian, and star-like Venus a little east. Right of the sun, Mercury is not bright enough to be seen in the daytime sky. The altitudes (or angular height above the horizon) of both Venus and the sun are slightly lower in 2017 than in 1865--consider the sun's midday position in January versus March--but the difference is negligible.

Be Presidential

President Lincoln was in the midst of a heavy mindset. Whitman continues:

I saw him on his return, at three o’clock, after the performance was over. He was in his plain two-horse barouche, and looked very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness underneath the furrows.

Yet with the weight of being Commander in Chief and administering to the country's needs, Lincoln recognized the beauty of a natural phenomenon that was unfolding--a unique personal experience for himself and for people celebrating the inauguration. Lincoln stopped to smell a celestial rose. He and citizens of his day had the scientific temperament to look up and essentially say, "Hey, that's cool. Never seen that before!"

I'd genuinely like to see that inquisitiveness about and attentiveness to the natural order realized and practiced by modern elected representatives. Will Trump's first day usher in a unique daytime Venus sighting for himself and those who follow him, or will the country instead merely get a digital communique from the Commander in Tweet?

Find Venus in the Daytime Sky

Venus is hard to find in the daytime sky because its white light is often overwhelmed by the bright bluish sky. At times, however, conditions coincide when Venus is well positioned above the horizon--its brightness is above a threshold that we can see and Venus is sufficiently far from the sun (angle-wise) that the planet is not lost in the solar glare. Now is such a time.

Last month while traveling I delighted in finding Venus repeatedly in the daytime sky from a far southern latitude. Admittedly, it helped that Venus was high in the sky and that the thin crescent moon had passed close by recently, serving as a wayfinding marker in subsequent days. The same technique can be used this month.

Over the next several days, at twilight notice the relative locations of the set sun, brilliant Venus, and the speedy moon that moves daily about 15 degrees eastward against the background stars. In the deepening darkness, reddish Mars emerges above and to the left of Venus. (Meanwhile, I'm mouthing through the song Venus and Mars by Paul McCartney and Wings.) Two weeks before the 2017 inauguration, for example, at 5:00 p.m. place Venus on the line you draw along the ecliptic, from the set sun (through Venus) to the moon in the east.

Venus between the sun and moon two weeks before Inauguration Day 2017

Now transfer that twilight arrangement to the sky view on a subsequent day. Before the moon's daily motion carries it too far east, use the sun and the waxing moon to target Venus. If the moon has moved out of sight or is obscured, you can estimate Venus' location by holding out your fist at arm's length. In January 2017 at 1:00 p.m., Venus is almost five fists to the left of the sun, and almost four fists up from the horizon.

I find my problem is that I often don't pre-focus on infinity when searching for Venus. I catch myself having been looking too close, as if reading font off a nearby cloud, rather than peering into deep space. Once you find Venus in the daytime you'll know what I mean. Spotting it subsequently gets a lot easier.

Facing south around 1:00 p.m. in January, you'll see the sun is a little west of the median, and Venus is a little east. Those two weeks before the inauguration occurs will make little difference in the planet's placement. If you can find Venus naked-eye now, you'll be able to do it again only two weeks later.

Venus phase in January 2017

In a telescope, the planet would not look circular, but more like a quarter moon. Galileo's discovery that Venus has phases was a key argument in favor of the heliocentric system, for Venus, like the moon, could only have phases if it passes between us and the sun. Venus is actually brighter when in a crescent phase than when in a full phase opposite the sun because the planet is so much closer to earth when it appears as a crescent.

Regarding brightness, I readily observed Venus last month when its magnitude was around -4.2. In 1865, Lincoln and the public observed Venus when its magnitude was -4.4. In 2017, the planet is equally bright with its visual magnitude equal to -4.5. All are relatively similar.

Look Up!

In summary, the planet Venus should be visible by day during this upcoming inauguration. I encourage you to practice finding it now. Put yourself along the path Lincoln took from the Capitol to the White House, look south at 1:00 PM, and search for a small shining planet amidst the overwhelming blue. You may yet find value in looking up on Inauguration Day, and you didn't even have to talk politics to achieve that satisfaction.

Washington DC, facing south , 1 PM on Inauguration Day 2017

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