Reflections 9/23/96
Robert Kern Curtis

On Seeing Venus

A former student, now a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, writes:

My co-editor is doing his astronomy homework and would like to know why can't we see Venus from Philadelphia at midnight.
Anyway, sorry I haven't written back to you more recently, but things here have been busy yet uneventful, so I've had a lot to do but nothing really important.
Well, I should be going.
Laura Dwyer
Photo Editor
The Daily Pennsylvanian

Now this happy inquiry causes me some great distress! I feel I have failed this student! In this educational world, where students are encouraged to ask questions; to participate; to be active inquirers and not lumps on a log, we have created the problem of students failing to think for themselves; figure things out; think! I am reminded of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who is often quoted as saying: "There is no effort to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking."

The answer to this question is that Venus is closer to the sun than the earth is, and it revolves around the sun. When it is midnight in Philadelphia, we are on the side of the earth facing away from the sun, and therefore away from Venus! And so, of course we cannot see Venus in the sky. (Thinking of Philadelphia reminds me of W. C. Fields....)

But, my problem is that, knowing the model, my former physics student should have figured out the solution for herself, and not had to ask the question--I had thought that I had taught her how to catch fish, and not just given her some fish to eat! (And yes, I love to begin sentences and paragraphs with conjunctions!)


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