James Clarke Masthead
May 2 2012 at 10:23

Diarise June 5 if you want to see something weird. You’ll be able to see the planet Venus in daylight – yet it won’t be shining. The planet will pass between us and the Sun.

If you have a piece of glass dark enough you’ll be able to see it –  a distinct dot passing in front of the Sun and taking a long time to cross its surface.

As I say, it will only be during the day because at night the Sun is like my cousin, Ed – not terribly bright.

Another way to see it is to take a sheet of paper and a pair of binoculars. Don’t for Pete’s sake look through the binoculars at the Sun or you’ll seriously damage your eyes.

Turn the fat end of the binoculars at the Sun and point the thin end at the sheet of paper and you’ll get an image of the Sun big enough to see Venus crossing its surface.

While we are on about astronomy… 

I read long ago that there are 4 billion stars. I have now learned that the Milky Way alone contains many billions of which 5 billion are each larger than our sun.

And, talking of billions, mathematicians at the University of Hawaii have calculated that there are 7 500 000 000 000 000 000 – “seven quintillion five quadrillion” – grains of sand on the beaches in the world.

According to Australian astronomer, Dr Simon Driver, there are more stars than grains of sand.

He estimates there are 70 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 stars in the visible universe. That’s nearly 100 times the number of grains of sand on all the world’s beaches.

I had always suspected this.


One of the most venerated members of the Johannesburg branch of the RAF Officers’ Club is former RAF fighter pilot, Denis Maxwell. Yesterday he celebrated – if that’s the right word – being shot down over German-occupied Northern France during World War II.

It was 70 years ago to the day that Johannesburg-born Denis crash-landed his Spitfire and was captured.

Now, aged 93, he lives in Mill Hill, Bryanston.

Denis joined the RAF at the age of 21 a few weeks before the Battle of Britain.

Until fairly recently the RAF Officers’ Club had several World War II pilots – nowadays it welcomes pilots retired and active, civil and military.

Flight-lieutenant Denis Maxwell eventually found himself incarcerated in Stalag Luft III – a specially designed prisoner-of-war camp for inveterate escapers.

There he met another South African fighter pilot – squadron leader Roger Bushell aged 32.

Bushell had been shot down over Dunkirk two years before.

While in Stalag III Denis took part in what turned out to be World War II’s most celebrated – and tragic – mass escape. It became known as The Great Escape.

Three escape tunnels were dug deep under the camp – three in the hope that at least one would succeed.

There were a few SA pilots there and Bushell, whose dad was, coincidentally, a mining engineer, masterminded the two-year tunnelling plan – the plan that inspired Paul Brickhill’s bestseller, The Great Escape.

In 1963, a film of that title starred Richard Attenborough playing the part of Roger Bushell.

Denis learned in retrospect that he was lucky to have been allocated a position more than 200 down the “escapee queue” for the break-out in March 1944.

Lucky because of the 76 officers who did escape all but three were recaptured and 50 of them were shot on orders from Hitler.

Roger Bushell was one of them.

Contact Stoep Talk: Fax: 011-465-4564

Write to: Box 876 Lonehill, 2062

e-mail: jcl@onwe.co.za


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