From the September 2006 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: See it to believe it

September 2006: Of all the amazing astro-phenomena, a total solar eclipse arguably tops the list.
By | Published: September 1, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Bob Berman
Of all the amazing astro-phenomena, a total solar eclipse arguably tops the list. Yet, most astronomy enthusiasts have never seen one. Maybe they just don’t fully realize how wonderful it is. If you’re in that group, I want to convince you, because the first step in the expensive process of meeting the Moon’s shadow is deciding to do it.
Consider: Of the solar system’s 150-odd moons, only ours is the perfect size and distance to neatly cover our Sun’s disk. Sure, your telescope shows the shadows of Jupiter’s moons sweep over the planet, but Io and his cousins block too much of the Sun. Jovians could never see a string of prominences.

Before Earth had life, our Moon was like Jupiter’s moons — too nearby. The situation is now going the other way, and, in less than a billion years, it’ll appear too small to cover the Sun. Only now are things just right, exactly when we excitement-hungry humans are here and psyched for it.

Life’s great visual experiences make one want to whip out a camera, but, in this case, it’s nearly futile. Among my March 2006 eclipse-viewing group huddled at the Libyan border, one Australian was an expert eclipse photographer. Yet, even his beautiful shots didn’t capture what we saw.

Not even close.

And isn’t that strange all by itself? You can take snapshots of plenty of things, and the photos resemble the subject being filmed. Not eclipses. Thanks to the eye’s ability to see a vast range of brightness, the retina perceives both the brilliant purplish-red prominences shooting from the Sun’s limb like nuclear geysers, and the delicate corona that spreads across the sky, ever fainter at increasing distances. Photos show one or the other, but not both.

It’s like playing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus” on an elevator.
Then there are the bizarre shadow bands, wiggling like snakes all over white surfaces just before and after totality. They cannot be photographed. The pictures and videos come out blank!

So I counseled the group beforehand: Let the experts take the pictures. Fill these precious few minutes absorbing the indescribable experience. And spend half the time with binoculars — with filters, of course! Simple.

Just before totality, the Sun’s light looked strange on the countryside. Shadows became stark, and the light became warmly colored, with contrasts weirdly accentuated. You knew something alien was afoot.

Animals respond accordingly, and so do people. Many weep. Some make visceral groans and exclamations. No, it’s nothing like the photographs, and as for TV — that shouldn’t even be allowed. It’s like playing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” on an elevator.

Superimposed on all of this are the circumstances of where you happen to be. As a longtime eclipse lecturer, I do my talks in the days ahead of the event. I shut up during the eclipse. In 1999, during an Astronomy magazine eclipse cruise in the Black Sea, I perched alone in a crow’s nest with a long microphone cable and made my final announcement: “Totality starts in 10 minutes, see you later” — and then turned off the loudspeakers. Does this experience require narration? Personally, I like totality served raw with just the natural sounds of the wind and freaked-out animals.

That time, another cruise ship had dropped anchor not far from ours, and although we thankfully couldn’t make out the words, we could hear that eclipse astronomer blabbing through the ship’s loudspeakers through the whole thing. Toss him overboard.

This year’s eclipse, at the Egypt-Libya border, was unique. The Egyptian government had thoughtfully set up a tent city for scientists and visitors, and Arabic pop music blared through loudspeakers. It was EclipseStock 2006. Morning fog lent an additional surreal touch (there was even a fogbow!), and so did a grandstand set up for the imminent arrival of the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Hosny Mubarak and his wife — along with enough security personnel to protect an entire planet. I was able to sneak my group of 43 away from that busy scene to a couple of miles down the highway, where we fanned out in the desert. You can always find your own space if you wish.

My first totality was in 1970 at Virginia Beach, where the happy crowds were just as excited but more spread out.

It’s not too early to plan ahead. We can drool about the upcoming United States eclipse, a 100-mile-wide coast-to-coast swath 11 years from now, and watch totality from Nashville or the Tetons. But who can wait? Some are already arranging their latest mortgage to finance the next totality, an inconvenient 2.5-minute affair August 1, 2008, in central Russia, Mongolia, and western China. Or the big one, the century’s longest, at 6.5 minutes July 22, 2009, with a track through India (including the spiritual Disneyland of Varanasi), China, and a Japanese island. Summer vacation time. We’ll look at statistical weather prospects, then decide where to go. Are you in?