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Students Places on Transit of Venus Expedition

Students to win places on 2004 Transit of Venus Expedition

The Royal Society of New Zealand, with sponsorship from the Freemasons of New Zealand, will send a party of nine students and three teachers to observe the first Transit of Venus for 120 years. This rare astronomical event is historically significant for New Zealand. It was the reason Captain Cook set sail into the southern ocean on his epic voyage. His mission was to observe the 1769 Transit from the newly discovered islands of Tahiti. Astronomer Edmond Halley had realized that observations of the Transit from different places on earth would enable astronomers to work out the distance to the Sun and, in turn, the Stars.

To win places on the 2004 Transit of Venus Expedition to Britain, teams comprising three students and one teacher from each school, will be asked to produce a video and supporting material which may be viewed on the web. Entries will explore an aspect of Cook's first voyage, Polynesian or Maori culture at the time, or astronomy, including the Transit of Venus. The competition is open to all Year 9-13 students. Information will be sent to schools next week.

While in the UK the students, who will be accompanied by the teacher from their school who led the project, will produce daily video reports for transmission back to New Zealand via a web stream. The website that will host the trip, developed by e-net Ltd of Auckland and funded by the government's Science and Technology Promotion Fund, will be a well-developed and publicised multimedia resource for all New Zealand schools to tune into.

In addition to observing the Transit on 8 June 2004 (this Transit is not visible from New Zealand), the students will visit sites of historical and scientific importance, such as visiting the Endeavour replica in Whitby, where Cook did his apprenticeship; Stonehenge; the Royal Observatory Greenwich; and the National Space Centre at Leicester. The Expedition members have already been invited by England's Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, to visit the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge and hear about the search for dark matter and the latest research into the origin and future of our Universe. Over the road is the famous Cavendish Laboratory, where students will meet one of New Zealand's top expat scientists, Professor Mark Warner.

The recent publication of Dame Anne Salmond's book, "The Trial of the Cannibal Dog", is a timely reexamination of Cook's South Pacific voyages and the cross cultural dynamics. These topics will be within the scope of the competition. Dame Anne's work was supported by the Marsden Fund, which is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Whilst the Tahiti observation of the Transit was not particularly successful because of the limitations of the instruments, Cook's first voyage added greatly to European understanding of the South Pacific, including New Zealand. Joseph Banks collected no less than 30,000 botanical specimens and Cook's circumnavigation of New Zealand disproved that the land was part of the "Great Unknown Southern Continent" which was commonly believed to exist. His forays far South showed that there was no such continent.

The Royal Society of New Zealand will be coordinating a whole series of events spanning the historical, astronomical and broader scientific and cultural aspects of the Transit of Venus and its place in New Zealand history. The Royal Society of New Zealand is very grateful for the sponsorship by the Freemasons, who are funding the competition and enabling three school teams to join the Expedition. The connections between the Freemasons and science go back to the 17th century and the origins of the Royal Society of London. The Freemasons continue their support for science through funding for medical research in gerontology, neuro-degenerative disease and paediatrics through the Universities of Auckland and Otago. Their commitment to education is expressed through New Zealand's largest privately funded scholarship programme, which assists more than 60 students with substantial financial support each year.

British Council New Zealand and the British High Commission are also assisting with the Transit of Venus project and itinerary for the students.

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