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The Eclipse FAQ
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The Eclipse FAQ

Or, "What the hell is so special about an eclipse, anyway?"

It is impossible to describe a total eclipse of the sun. It is an event so awesome, so overwhelming, that people will endure hardship and discomfort just to observe it. We are not astronomers; we just go for the experience, which no photograph or description can convey. We met one astronomer who had once spent hours setting up and calibrating his camera-telescope, and then forgot to take pictures because he was so overwhelmed.

Video (on YouTube)

"But I saw an eclipse at [some place and time], and I still don't get it."

I hear this a lot. The answer is almost always "no, you didn't." It usually turns out to have been a partial eclipse, or an annular eclipse, or even a lunar eclipse. When we were in South Africa, I met a man who swore he saw the 1991 total eclipse from the top of Haleakela in Maui. But Haleakela was not in the path of totality. On the same trip I met a woman who saw the total eclipse of 1999 in Paris, which, again, was not in the path. People read about a total eclipse, and they see an event, but they usually don't know enough to realize that the event they saw was not totality. Seeing a total eclipse is completely different from seeing a 99% partial eclipse. It's like an orgasm: if you think that you might've had one, then you haven't.

Eclipse Effects:

The Crescent Effect

Barbara in 2012
This effect is observable early in the eclipse, when the sun is 50% occluded, more or less. People can see this even outside the path of totality. Look down at the dappled shadows under a tree. Where you would normally see spots of light, you will see a multitude of crescents; the image of the sun projected through the gaps between the leaves.

Heightened Visual Acuity

This is a very eerie effect. As the eclipse progresses towards totality, more of the sun is covered, so the source of sunlight grows much smaller than usual. This change makes shadows sharper and darker. Shadows that are normally grey and fuzzy become black and razor-edged. Look at your own shadow and see the shadows of the individual hairs on your head! Every object seems more sharply focused. The effect is as if your visual acuity has been cranked up from 10 to 11. It's dark, yet bright. Totally weird.
20% Totality 98% Totality
These two pictures were taken in Bolivia at elevation 14,000 feet. The picture on the left was taken soon after first contact, when only about 20 per-cent of the sun was covered. The picture on the right was taken very shortly before totality.

Wall of Darkness

If you can watch the eclipse from a good vantage point, you can actually see the moon's shadow racing across the world toward you. If there are some clouds or distant mountains, you can still get the effect of an onrushing wall of darkness. Even though you, intelligent biped, know what is happening, the effect produces a jolt of adrenaline. It is a fearsome sight.

Shadow Bands

Shadow bands:
a sketch from 1870
This effect is rare and fleeting. In the few seconds before totality, flat surfaces will sometimes show wavering bands of light that look like the rippling light on the bottom of a swimming pool. This coupled with the other lighting effects adds to the surreal effect.

In Bolivia, just as the sun was being blotted out, someone shouted that there were shadow bands. There they were, snaking across the salt flat beneath my feet. I became dizzy from the surreal lighting and the adrenaline.

Meteorological Effects

When the sun is covered, the local weather can change rapidly and dramatically. On the Bolivian Altiplano, the temperature dropped from 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) to 40 degrees in a period of about 10 minutes. We had a similar effect in Mongolia. In Baja, clouds formed right around the sun, fortunately not occluding it. Sometimes clouds will clear, other times clouds will form.

Totality

The middle of an otherwise
bright, sunny day
This is the most astonishing part. Seeing the sun blotted out is a powerful emotional experience. We have friends who were listening to a radio broadcast from Baja in '91. They heard all those people shouting, moaning, and weeping. Their response was that they had to go see for themselves this phenomenon that could cause this response. (We met them in Bolivia and traveled again with them to Aruba.)

Diamond Rings and Bailey's Beads

As the moon covers the sun, in the final seconds a last ray of sunlight is often visible, producing a "diamond ring" effect. The diamond ring is also often visible at the end of totality.

Bailey's Beads are like many miniature diamonds, and is caused by the sun's rays shining through several canyons on the moon's surface.

The Corona

A surprisingly small halo of pure silver-white light, achingly beautiful. In the darkness stars appear around it. The landscape takes on a strange silvery darkness.

Sometimes great prominences extend the silver light; every eclipse looks different. Also, in Turkey we saw three bright red solar prominences that looked like rubies in the silver tiara.

The 360-degree Sunset

In the darkness of totality, there is often a sunset along the entire horizon. This was particularly pronounced and beautiful at Baja, Bolivia, and Aruba.

Animal Confusion

Birds and other animals decide that it is night and quickly do their dusk activities. Herds of cows head for their barns. Insects go silent.

Local Reactions

Every culture seems to respond differently. Many cultures keep women indoors or even evacuate them from the area of totality. In India, Bolivia, and Mexico, an eclipse is believed to harm a woman's fertility or to cause birth defects. In Mexico, the eclipse was a huge party, with fireworks and music. In Bolivia, a few Indians watched the developing eclipse with us, but at totality they kneeled together and prayed, their eyes averted earthward. At Rajasthan, local villagers were wildly enthusiastic, pointing at flocks of birds and other phenomena, laughing and gesticulating.

Our Holiday Karma

This is not a generic eclipse effect, but a fortuitous happenstance for us. Most of our eclipses have coincided with significant local holidays. In Bolivia, the Day of the Dead happened just before the eclipse, so we participated in this two-day holiday in some of the remotest villages of the Bolivian Altiplano. In India, Divali (the Festival of Lights) is much like our own Christmas and is celebrated with lights, song, and firecrackers. We enjoyed Divali in a small town in a relatively untouristed part of Rajasthan. In the Caribbean, we experienced Carnival in Trinidad, and then flew to Aruba to see the eclipse.

Good Links

  • NASA's Eclipse Page is one of the best
  • Fred Espenak, known as Mister Eclipse, has a personal site at www.mreclipse.com. This is a great resource for eclipse photography and general eclipse information.
  • Eclipse Chasers has a nice all-purpose page.
  • The Exploratorium has a Solar Eclipse page.
  • The "busiest eclipse chaser in Canada" has a quirky but enjoyable site at Eclipse Guy.

How We Became
Eclipsoids

So Barbara went to India in the mid-seventies, which led us to become football fans, which in turn led to our solar eclipse addiction.

The connection isn't obvious? Then let me explain.

Barbara was a PhD candidate in the cross-disciplinary field of Religion and Literature, in a degree program jointly administered by U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. She was casting about for a thesis topic and decided to take a break and go to India and Nepal.

Barbara really should write a book about her trip. She got hepatitis in Nepal and was carried out in a basket by hired porters. She was crudely propositioned by supposedly celibate gurus. She stayed in places from which your eurotrash backpacker would have fled in panic.

Everywhere she went, she observed a spiritual fervor that had no apparent parallel in the West. She noted the profusion of festivals, processions, observances, temples, and pilgrimages, and wondered what, if any, were the equivalent phenomena in the U.S.

Finally, after nine months of adventure and peril, she returned to her parent's home. She walked into the living room and announced "I'm back!" Her father growled "Quiet! The game is on!"

Barbara had an epiphany. So this was the western obsession, the expression of passion, the equivalent fervor! She decided to write her doctoral thesis on American football.

I met Barbara in 1982 when she was completing the thesis. I helped copy-edit it. It was in the form of a comic novel titled "Instant Replay / Sudden Death". As an ex-hippie, I was disdainful of American spectator sports. One of our first dates was to attend a party to watch the Forty-Niners win their first Super Bowl. Now we were both hooked.

In 1991, the Forty-Niners won their fourth Super Bowl, in New Orleans, by a score of 55 to 10. (Some might find such a game to be boring, but we've watched the video tape twice!) Barbara was disappointed that we hadn't gone to see the game in person. For consolation, she insisted that we go to Mexico that summer to see an eclipse. We'd heard that they were interesting, and so we decided to see one. After all, the location was convenient.

Of course we discovered that one eclipse is never enough. Our immediate reaction after the eclipse of July 11, 1991 was "Dang! Where is the next one?" When we got home, we immediately started planning to go to Bolivia for the eclipse of 1994. And then Rajasthan in 1995. And so on...

Our Eclipse List:

  • Baja Sur, on the beach near San Jose del Cabo, 1991.
  • Bolivia, on the Altiplano, 1994.
  • India, in Rajasthan, 1995.
  • Aruba, 1998.
  • Turkey, 1999.
  • South Africa, in Kruger Park, 2002. We were clouded out!
  • Mongolia, in the far west, 2008.
  • Hangzhou, China, 2009. Again, clouded out!
  • California, near Redding, 2012. An annular eclipse.
  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Great!
Email us:
billc at eclipsoid dot com
[Copyright ©Bill Coffin; 1997, 2017]