ASTRONOMY CLUB ....

[© Copyright 1999, Dennis Smith and Explorit Science Center]

August 11, 1999, The Last Total Eclipse Of The Sun In the Second Millenium

At 2:15 p.m. August 11, approximately 600 passengers (including myself and 6 other Club members) and most of the crew were on deck of the Marco Polo off the coast of Bulgaria to witness the "Last Total Solar Eclipse of the Millenium." Perhaps because Sky and Telescope, a major astronomy magazine, organized our cruise, several other cruise ships had surrounded us to see the event. Most of the passengers on our ship were there to compare this eclipse with the many others they had seen. Several of these veteran eclipse chasers had seen 4 or more on similar cruises. Eclipses are addictive. Four of the club members, including myself, would be witnessing our first total solar eclipse. Thanks to several meetings on board ship, organized by Sky and Telescope's editor Rick Feinberg, we felt we were prepared for the upcoming events.

In the photo below - the anticipation builds!

On board the Marco Polo
A total eclipse of the sun cannot be compared to any other natural phenomenon. Many of those who remember having seen eclipses have actually seen only partial eclipses of the sun and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial solar eclipse is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. A total eclipse begins and ends with a partial eclipse. Beginning at 12:50 p.m. the Moon began to gradually cover the sun. During the partial phase, the increasing darkness caused some birds that had stowed away, to begin flying about the decks, as if preparing for the oncoming darkness.

But the glory of the total eclipse is "totality." During totality, the sun's dazzling surface that we are most familiar with during the day and which we cannot view without special filters, is totally covered by the Moon's disk. Standing completely in the Moon's shadow, we may then view the eclipse without special glasses. At 2:15 p.m. from along the western horizon, the shadow of totality raced toward us at over 1,000 miles per hour and then engulfed us in darkness for a little over two minutes. During an eclipse, totality can last at the most, 7 minutes 58 seconds, depending largely on the distance between the Moon and the Earth. The closer the Moon to the Earth, the larger its shadow and the longer the experience of totality.

Totality began with an event that I found the most spectacular of the eclipse: the diamond ring effect. This occurs when the last rays of the sun are shining through valleys along the edge of the moon's disk. The appearance was of a white ring with a bright gleam on the (to us) leftmost point - resembling a glittering diamond ring. The quality of the light from the diamond was magical and dazzling, appearing to me startlingly white and pure. After this moment, the darkest part of the eclipse began.

The overall appearance of totality is that of a black hole in a beautiful dark blue sky. This hole, the size of the full moon, has a most unusual and spell binding appearance. It is surrounded by a thin red ring. Flaring out far beyond this ring is a pale white brush of gossamer like streamers. The fine red ring around the edge of the moon's disk is a layer of the outer atmosphere of the sun called the chromosphere. Small, loopy projections from the ring, called prominences, could be seen around the occulting disk of the Moon with the naked eye. Prominences are the evidence of magnetic storms exploding off the sun's surface. Extending beyond this thin red ring are snowy white feather-like streamers of the sun's corona, which stretch out for several solar diameters. Because the sunspot cycle of the sun was near its 11 year maximum, the corona in this eclipse was not as large as at other eclipses. Binoculars and telescopes are useful to help resolve details in the prominences and corona, and many passengers were busy taking pictures of these features during totality. For me, by choice, this eclipse was a strictly a naked eye experience. I didn't want to concentrate on cameras or telescopes. Some of the eclipse chasers hardly glanced up from their viewfinders.

Not all the phenomena of totality occurred overhead. Though the sky near the eclipse was dark enough to show Venus and Mercury, for 360 degrees around the horizon appeared the colors of dawn, because in those areas the eclipse was only partial.

Totality ended much too quickly with the reappearance of another beautiful diamond ring effect - but now, of course, the "diamond" was on the opposite side of the "ring" as the solar disk moved away from the disk of the Moon. Also, I saw the shadow of totality speeding eastward toward the mainland of Turkey. It was time again to shield our eyes and optics from the brilliance of the sun's disk. The final partial phase of the eclipse lasted until 3:40 p.m., when the sun finally was freed of interference from the Moon.

That evening, a "post mortem" was held to discuss the events. The consensus was that this eclipse had several unique features and the expedition was a big success. Some observers noted that the corona was smaller than at the 1997 eclipse in Baja California. Many first timers noted that the light seemed to have a strange quality just before totality. One novice confessed she didn't know there was going to be an eclipse or what to expect, but now was determined to see another. One passenger from San Francisco commented that the water around the ship seemed to "twinkle" just before totality, and the shadows seemed to have strange "hairs" appearing around them at the same time. As totality had approached, the pinpointing" of the light source gave great detail to shadows on the ship. For example, shadows of your head would show individual hairs. A man from Minnesota noted that the eclipse in pictures looked "flat" but this eclipse looked three-dimensional to his eyes. All passengers were pleased with the efforts made to get the ship in the correct place at the right time, and that there was plenty of room on the ship's decks for all the people and all the equipment people had brought. Others thanked the amateur astronomers on board who helped passengers to view through their telescopes and binoculars. Many began making plans for the next big solar eclipse, which will occur in southern Africa on June 21, 2001.

In the weeks since the eclipse, I have tried to organize my memories and impressions. I believe that what surprised me most about the eclipse was its brevity. We had come so far and planned so long for an event that lasted less than two and half minutes! Secondly, I was amazed by the changes in light and color during the eclipse. The brilliance of the diamond ring effect, for example, contrasting with the dull pinkish glow around the horizon during totality, and the almost ominous dark shadow of totality as it passed from us into the east. I will remember also the escalating anxiety among the passengers as totality approached and the desperate fear that something might yet prevent us from seeing this event. This anxiety was given voice by worried passengers when the Captain decided to start the bow thruster engine a few minutes before totality, sending a pall of black diesel smoke over the front decks.

But most I will remember the eclipse as a "silent" event. Despite the fact that the ship's horn made a very long blast during totality, making it impossible to talk to anyone where I was. Despite the fact that Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" was blasted at ear splitting level over the emergency intercoms after totality further preventing any conversation. Despite these events, in my mind the eclipse seemed to occur in profound, almost reverential silence. Fellow passengers were yelling and cheering, and filled with the excitement of the moment, but I remember most the quiet precision with which the sun and Moon came into alignment. Oblivious to us on our clamorous luxury liner, they seemed to silently dance their cosmic, ancient dance and then, move on.

When we disembarked our ship and flew out of Istanbul, I remarked on how much the eclipsed sun resembled the ubiquitous charms sold in Turkey to ward off the "evil eye." Less than 36 hours after leaving Istanbul a calamitous earthquake struck northwest Turkey. In a land where thousands had marveled at the eclipse as we had, now tens of thousands are dead and hundreds of thousands are homeless. Eclipses are mapped with fine precision. I hope someday great earthquakes will be predicted with as great a precision -- until then, we can only help those who are suffering now.

Dennis Smith
[© Copyright 1999, Dennis Smith and Explorit Science Center]
For more, interesting information you might like to visit the Sky and Telescope internet site on eclipses for more information and views. It is at: http://www.skypub.com/sights/eclipses/eclipses.shtml

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