Mercury Transit

Lev Parsons, Science Teacher
To celebrate last week’s Mercury transit, the St. Bernard’s astronomy club put together a slew of activities to involve the entire community in this rare celestial event: live viewings, activities, good heart lessons, and a special guest speaker.
Excitement filled the air on Monday, November 11, as students and teachers piled into the science lab to catch a glimpse of Mercury.  At 0.5% the size of the sun from our earthly perspective, Mercury is by all measures a difficult planet to observe.  However, we were up to the challenge.  We set up our telescope, outfitted it with a solar filter, fastened the zooming objective lens and set out to track the ever shifting sun.  With a steady hand on the scope and a keen eye, the boys were just able to make out Mercury, a faint dot, as it eclipsed the sun.  The boys were most surprised by how small the planet appeared and were startled by the birds that often photo-bombed the eclipse. 
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the seventh and eighth grades took part in a transit-themed Good Heart lesson where they explored the pillar of honesty.  The boys learned about the heliocentric teachings of Galileo, how these ideas collided with the religious dogma of the time, and how Galileo was coerced to recant his teachings.  Pretending they were Galileo’s legal counsel during his trial, the boys wrote out an opening statement in defense of Galileo and his scientific integrity.  To end the lesson, the boys grappled with the question “Are there any instances when a scientist should sacrifice their scientific integrity?”
To cap off our week of celebration, Irene Pease, an astronomer and producer of the Hayden Planetarium video blog, stopped by.  She taught the fourth grade boys the mechanics of transits and had fun teaching them to pronounce the word syzygy – an alignment of three or more celestial bodies.  To help them visualize the distance between Earth and the sun, Ms. Pease had to scale down the solar system.  The boys were shocked that Earth would be the size of a dot if the sun were the size of a paper plate.  Then Ms. Pease had them walk the distance between the scaled down models of the sun and Earth – taking them from the classroom, down the fifth floor hallway, and one flight down the west staircase.
After such a successful week of bringing astronomy awareness to the St. Bernard’s community, the astronomy club is looking forward to celebrating the next Mercury transit on May 7, 2049.