All about parallax

In a few hours, the Transit of Venus will begin.  Why do we care about this rare astronomical event?  The reasons are mostly historical.  Back in the 1600’s, the data from observing Venus passing between the Sun and Earth (“transiting across the face of the Sun”), from multiple locations on Earth, were important to figuring out the distance from the Sun to Earth – and therefore beginning to understand the size of the Solar System.  It’s all about parallax.

Technically, parallax is the apparent change in position and appearance of an object when viewed from a different location.  Parallax gives humans stereoscopic vision and depth perception.  Animals whose eyes do not have overlapping fields of view move their heads to get different perspectives on what they are seeing.  On a larger scale, parallax has been important in astronomy to measure distances to the Moon, Sun, and other stars.

The concept of parallax is important for leaders, too.  Leaders learn more about a subject by looking at it from multiple perspectives — by seeing it through the lenses of other people, other places, and other times.    Sometimes, a topic or issue or possible solution looks the same from many viewpoints, but sometimes the view changes dramatically depending on the perspective.  Triangulating on the most comprehensive description and the best solution by incorporating parallax can result in better understanding and more effective decisions.

When I was in Tahiti, a number of years ago, I visited the site where James Cook observed the Transit in 1769;  contemporary reports suggest that the wonders of the Transit paled in comparison to those of the island and its people.  NASA has a good summary of this event and its significance at this URL:  http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/02jun_jamescook/.  After today’s 2012 Transit, the next one doesn’t occur until 2117.

Just remember not to look directly at the Sun.  Even for leaders who are interested in gathering as much information as possible, permanent vision damage isn’t worth it.

 

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