Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11... the 20th Anniversary of ”Big One!”

I’m sure that in everyone’s life there’s a date that sticks out as the most memorable.  For me, that date is July 11. 

It was on July 11, 1979 that Skylab, the first orbiting U.S. space station, came plunging through the atmosphere to its demise.  As you can imagine, that caused a bit of concern for people on the ground!

On July 11, 1992, I got a German Shepherd, and in the 13 years we were together she became my very best friend.  No judgment, no anger, no prejudice… only unconditional love.  We humans could learn a lot from our dogs. 

And on July 11, 1983, my father died of lung cancer and emphysema.  That was a rough summer for everyone involved.  But it was he who, during my childhood, supported my love of astronomy, even though he had no idea what it was really all about.  And it was he who, nearly 20 years earlier, took me to see my first total solar eclipse. 


I was 12 that summer (OK, I’ll wait for you to get your calculator…) and my parents had taken me on a long drive up the East Coast from our home in Pennsylvania, through Maine and on into northeastern Canada.  We did this during a few summers, but I remember that trip specifically because there was to be an eclipse of the sun.  

When the sky show began, my Dad pulled out some color film from his Super-8 movie camera and doubled it up so we could watch as the moon’s silhouette drifted across the blinding face of the sun.  This, I know today, is NOT a safe way to do this!  Nonetheless, we saw the eclipse and, somehow, managed to keep our vision.  

What sticks in my mind most vividly is that, near the eclipse maximum, the sun had nearly vanished.  It had become just a thin sliver—probably 98 or 99% of its full disk was blacked out—the sky darkened considerably and I was quite impressed.  Years later I looked back at a map of this eclipse and realized if we had driven just a few more miles we would not have seen a partial solar eclipse, but a total solar eclipse.   

Why should that matter?  What possible difference could there be between a 98% total and a 100% total eclipse?  Same questions I asked most of my life. In fact, during the 1970s and 80s a number of total solar eclipses passed over North America and I didn’t make the effort to get to them.  I couldn’t really afford to do this, so I rationalized it this way: “Why spend all that time and money to go someplace to watch the sky get dark in the daytime, when I can just wait a few hours and it’ll become dark here.” 

Well, it was exactly 20 years ago today that I found out just how dumb that was!

It was on July 11, 1991 that I experienced my first total solar eclipse—the “big one”—the longest total solar eclipse of our lifetime.  I use the word “experience” rather than “see” because it’s so much more than just visual! 

Many people from the U.S. went to Baja California or Hawaii for this sky show. I was lecturing on the Carnival cruise ship Jubilee off the coast of Mazatlán and, despite some weather issues and a near-mutiny by a few “difficult” passengers, we managed to get to the right place at the right time.  

This is important because, while one can see a partial solar eclipse from much of the day-lit world, only those along the eclipse “center line” can experience a total eclipse.  That’s because the moon’s shadow speeding across the Earth’s surface at more than 1,000 miles per hour traces out a path only a few dozen miles wide, so any error could be a disaster. 

But here we were, in the right place at the right time, and it wasn’t long before shouts of "first contact!" rang out as the moon's curved silhouette first darkened the western limb of the sun.  Camera shutters clicked and all eyes turned skyward.  The drama was on!

As the moon drifted gracefully in front of our star, excited chatter came from everywhere.  Some simply lay back on deck chairs enjoying the sights;  others were diligently operating complex batteries of optical tools, hoping to record every second of the action. 
Over the next hour or so, the eclipse progressed.  Nothing great; I’d seen this partial eclipse stuff before.  But sunlight was dimming significantly, and soon only a delicate crescent sun remained.  Shadows on the deck had become noticeably sharper, and the temperature began to drop, providing some much-welcomed cooler air.

Now, with only seconds to go, I got my first taste of “totality.”  

In the west, the moon’s dark shadow descended ominously and rapidly from the heavens, engulfing the Pacific in a still and eerie darkness. 

The dark shadow of the moon approaches the Yangtze River during the 2009 eclipse.

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m as logical and rational a being as any you’ll find on this planet… yet, as I looked in the direction of this descending darkness I was overcome with the most profound sensation. I could feel my heart pounding, and remember thinking to myself: “My God, something has gone horribly wrong.  It’s not supposed to be this way...”

It was terrifying.  Of course I knew exactly what was happening and why, but this wasn’t intellectual; this was completely primal.  Somewhere deep within my DNA must be data encoded that the sun—our giver of life, light and power—is not supposed to vanish in the daytime.  I can’t even begin to imagine the terror felt by unsuspecting primitive peoples when such a celestial event removed the sun from their daytime sky.

Totality over the Paul Gauguin (2005)
Soon, the last beam of sunlight disappeared behind the moon's edge―the "diamond ring."   And then, totality!
The place where the mighty sun once shone was a void, around which the sun's gossamer corona streamed outward across the sapphire sky.  Some cheered its arrival;  some wept at its splendor.  I was somewhere in between. 

But all gazed in awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer.  What a magnificent and exhilarating moment―one that some had waited an entire lifetime to experience.  Myself included.

In the twilight sky, the planets Mercury, Venus and Jupiter glistened like jewels near the pearly-white corona, and along the horizon glowed the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset.  If ever an alien landscape existed on Earth, this was it.  Its beauty held even the most jaded sky watchers captive, and we all became swept up by the haunting celestial theater.
Six minutes and 53 seconds passed like an instant... and then it was over. Sunlight burst back into view.  As we toasted what was surely the greatest sky show I had ever experienced, a school of dolphins leaped in and out of the water alongside the ship as if to celebrate with us this remarkable celestial event.

2008 totality over
Lake Novosibirsk, Siberia
And I had learned once and for all why people will do almost anything to travel across the world to spend but a few fleeting minutes in the shadow of the moon.  

Since that total solar eclipse in 1991, I have experienced a dozen more on six continents and several seas, and have spent more than 30 exhilarating minutes engulfed by the moon’s shadow. No two were ever exactly alike, but each changed the way I view the cosmos and our place in it.

I sincerely hope that such a remarkable experience is firmly planted in your "bucket list," but please don't do as I did.  Don’t put it off.  Join me in November 2012 for our next total solar eclipse adventure in the magical Land Down Under—Australia and New Zealand.  I promise it’ll be an experience you will never forget!

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