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Cause To Look Up At Women's March

If you are attending any Women's March on January 21, 2017, and you have a positive attitude or a willingness to look up, then I encourage you to seek a poignant moment reminiscent of an inauguration--that is, the second Presidential Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Pause midday to gaze above the women gathered around you, and to the south you may find Venus--a rare daytime sight indeed--just as Lincoln himself did in 1865. As you see Venus as you've never seen her before, consider how you can elevate women as you've not done before.

Scene from second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, 1865; courtesy of Library of Congress

A Sight For All

The year 1865 was a bleary time in US history, the nation split in a great battle of principles about the worth and dignity of human beings. We had a humble President who valued individual lives rather than seeing persons as economic commodities or the chattel of enterprises. American poet Walt Whitman observed President Lincoln on the day of Lincoln's second inauguration. Lincoln "very quietly rode down to the Capitol in his own carriage by himself, on a sharp trot, about noon."

Not long after the inauguration, with the weather having cleared, the lure of Venus in the daytime sky caused spectators and Lincoln to pause and look up. 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 on March 4. The vertical green line marks the meridian for due south, with the sun and exaggerated glow 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 in 1865 would have cleared the Washington, DC, skies of pollution, too. And Venus was near maximum elongation, its greatest angular distance from the sun.

Fast Forward to 2017

Now consider the celestial circumstances of Saturday, January 21, 2017, the day of the Women's March. The similarity to 1865 is noteworthy.

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--which may impact Venus' visibility slightly.

Venus is again near its greatest elongation, which will have occurred only a week earlier, on January 12. In 2017, the "evening star" Venus reaches its greatest illuminated extent--when the illuminated area facing us is the greatest--on February 17. The techno-speak merely means the planet is really bright and about as far from the glaring sun as it gets.

Take Time to Recognize a Goddess

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.

Even 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 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 the modern population.

Look Up graphic

In the context of the Women's March, I encourage you to recognize females in a new perspective, just as you're looking at Venus as you've never seen Venus before. Who are the Venuses in your life? What women--and others who are marginalized or maligned in our society--do you need to look at anew and to value publicly? It's a small and corny connection between an inauguration, a planet, and the worth of people, but national and personal improvement need both symbolic moments and genuine actions.

The people marching with women across the globe on December 21 rightly assert that it's time to elevate women as we move forward. We must all look up toward and practice higher ideals. Women aren't asking to be treated as the goddess Venus; they only ask to be treated with equality.

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.

Over the next several days, at twilight notice the relative locations of the set sun and brilliant Venus. 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.)

Now transfer that twilight arrangement to the sky view on a subsequent day. 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. You can estimate Venus' location by holding out your fist at arm's length. 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.

Illustration of Venus appearing as a crescent planet.

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 in January 2017. 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. With spirits high in DC and elsewhere, find value in women and other marginalized people by looking up during the Women's March and honoring them with equality thereafter.

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

Adapted from my blog post Looking Up at the Inauguration.

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