28 March, 2012

The Sun Also Hides

In yesterday's post I wrote about about the nighttime sky. It reminded me of the fourth or fifth post I wrote for this blog back when I began - this time about the daytime sky. I think it's still worth a read.

I’m thinking about eclipses, but I’m not really sure why. I am certain, however, it has nothing to do with Twilight. It could be because I'm heavens-oriented after hearing Age of Aquarius on the radio this morning - very early as I drove my wife and daughter in the dark to the Syracuse airport for a 6:00 am flight. Or it could be because I have always been an astronomy buff and read that one was occurring in southern South America today, and I love the histories of our enchantment with these celestial events. Or it could be because I’m waxing nostalgic with all the women I love out of town.

Solar eclipses, of course, are not all alike; they can be partial or annular or total. You can Google the differences. If you’re expecting totality … well, at any given point on this planet that's a rare occurrence. So if experiencing totality is your goal, be patient. Or be ready to travel.

On March 7, 1970, I observed a total solar eclipse knowing I would not be able to do that again for 47 years – at least not in the continental United States. I gathered with dear friends on the edge of the Atlantic in the most southern part of Virginia Beach, an area that has now been developed although it was not then. We were excited. How could you not be excited?! We were also, however, prepared to view safely - knowing how easily eyes can be damaged by staring directly at the sun. Although all Americans in the lower 48 would experience a partial eclipse, we were among the minority who would be favored with totality.

It all began around 12:40 EST with First Contact as the moon began to move between the earth and the sun, and it would take about an hour to reach totality. Totality had made landfall at about that time in southern Mexico and would quickly move into the Gulf before again making landfall in northern Florida and skirting up the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. After getting to us it would move back out to sea and finally touch Nantucket before disappearing from the U.S. until 2017. I’d like to say I saw the moon’s shadow rush up the beach toward us, but at about a half/mile per second, I’m sure it seemed instantaneous.

It was a remarkable viewing; we saw everything. Second Contact, when it’s almost total and Baily’s Beads appear, was incredible. Then, about 1:40, we experienced totality – a most eerie midday darkness - for about three minutes, and during that totality we were able to see the elusive Shadow Bands – wavy lines of alternating light and dark – that moved and undulated across the sands. Many professional observers don’t get to see those, but we did. I was humbled. And we saw the corona. Then it was over - Third Contact when the first sunlight emerges from behind the moon and Fourth Contact when the sun is again at full intensity.

Although I’ve tried, there are no adequate words for that experience. I understand why those who can afford it travel the world over to catch these moments of totality. Never have I felt so small and so inspired at the same time. I am a fortunate man.