Thursday, June 15, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Sun Part 1

Not easy to get a good picture on a ship
This is the first of a series of posts I will write about the upcoming total eclipse of the Sun that will be visible this year in a narrow swath that crosses the entire continental United States on Monday, August 21. In preparation for this eclipse, I dug out everything I had saved from the trip to see my first total eclipse of the Sun in July of 1991. At that time I was completing the physical science teaching credential program at San Jose State. My wife Gia and I took a cruise out of Los Angeles on Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade. We sailed to Cabo San Lucas and then observed the eclipse from the Sea of Cortez. On board the ship was a long list of scientists that gave fascinating lectures before and after the big event. Among these were archaeoastronomer Ed Krupp from Griffith Observatory, cosmologist David Schramm from the University of Chicago, astronomer Donald Osterbrock from Lick Observatory, meteorologist James Sadler from the University of Hawaii, and geologist, astronaut, and senator Harrison Schmitt.
Brought along my Space Shots trading card for Schmitt to sign

UCLA Extension offered a class during the cruise, Astronomy 425.84. I signed up for the college units and because I would be going to all the lectures anyway. As part of the class I was required to write a paper about my experience. While going through my eclipse momentos, I found my paper written in cursive on Royal Caribbean stationary. Since I got a solid A on it, I thought I would share it. Below is the text from my paper exactly as I wrote it except for a few corrections suggested by the spellchecker and a few added commas. The only additions are the pictures, videos, and their captions.

Seven Minutes of Spectacle, a Lifetime of Wonder

The Sun is the same in a relative way but you're older
A total solar eclipse is the most spectacular natural phenomenon that can be observed without mortal danger. People have traversed the globe to witness them even after the advent of coronagraphs. Although total solar eclipses have little scientific value, they can have great value to the individuals that witness them. A renewed curiosity in all natural phenomena will surely occur in everyone who views a total solar eclipse. This paper will describe my own observations and reactions as well as some of the people I have talked with.

A sense of apprehension pervaded the ship on the morning of the eclipse. The towering cumulonimbus clouds that surrounded us looked threatening. However, those of us who attended the Pacific weather lecture knew that they would stay over the mainland and the peninsula. It was the high cirrus clouds that caused the most worry. They covered the sun most of the morning up to the first contact. Just before first contact the ship seemed to pull out from under them, revealing the Sun. I was observing through my 20 x 80 binoculars and was able to see that the Sun was finally clear. I detected first contact at 11:29 and 14 seconds, seeing it well before people using the solar screen viewers. Even though I had a compass and was paying attention to my orientation, first contact occurred almost 90 degrees from the part of the limb I was concentrating on!

The excitement grew as we monitored the moon’s progress across the solar disk using the binoculars, view screens, and the viewfinder of the video camera. It soon became clear that the center of the moon was going straight towards the center of the Sun’s disk. This was not going to be just a partial eclipse!

Shadow bands from another eclipse (Wolfgang Strickland)
A noticeable dimming of the ambient light occurred about 20 minutes before totality. Sunglasses were no longer necessary and the air temperature grew cooler. This darkening progressed until shadows were barely visible. People’s attentions were drawn towards the west, looking for the approach of the moon’s shadow. I turned my attention to a white sheet laid out next to my position when someone exclaimed “shadow bands!” They were very evident against the sheet for about 10 seconds before totality. They were stripes of dark and light bands about 2-3 inches across. At first they appeared to move towards the east but then they started to oscillate. I believe this was an optical illusion.

Now it was time for the main event. I removed the filters from my binoculars and video camera just as the crowd shouted. I looked up to see the most beautiful and eerie sight. It looked like no picture I have ever seen. I now know why people travel so far to see total eclipses, it is the only way to know what one looks like! The corona extended for about two moon diameters with two streamers approaching three and one half. Detailed structure could be seen throughout the corona. No photograph could show this wide range of lighting and structure. After my eyes had dark adapted some, I looked to see what planets and stars were visible. I quickly made out Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Regulus, Canopus, Betelgeuse, and Sirius. I did not see Mars, Castor, or Pollux but the incredible view of the eclipsed Sun didn’t make it worth looking for them!

Eclipse with prominences drawn by
dinner table partner Darly, age 5

The biggest surprise for me was the obvious naked-eye prominences. There was one large one to the north and several moderate size ones to the south. They had a beautiful pink-orange color. Through the 20 x 80 binoculars the large prominence showed a hook structure. With all the different factors that combined to make this a great eclipse I think being near sunspot maximum provided the best show. I will never forget the appearances of the prominences.

I was also surprised by how bright it was during the eclipse. I had been told to have a flashlight ready because it would be dark. It never got darker than sunset usually is. I believe this was due to the brighter than usual corona and the reflected light off the cumulonimbus clouds which nearly surrounded us. This probably explains why we didn’t see the approach or departure of the moon’s shadow.

I kept hoping Lurch would come out with a tray of drinks.
The reappearance of the diamond ring signaled third contact and the end of totality. Its beauty tempered the disappointment of our experience coming to an end. I looked around and observed that everyone else was as emotionally drained as I felt. They looked happy and serene. I stayed on deck until just after fourth contact, filming the entire sequence on video. A new sense of camaraderie had developed among the people who had just shared this experience. We exchanged addresses so that we can share our pictures at a later date. The actor John Astin was near us (Addams Family, Night Court) and I talked with him for awhile, never mentioning his celebrity status. The experience of a total eclipse had humbled us all.

Since the eclipse I have noticed a heightened interest in science and astronomy among the passengers. Our nightly stargazing is better attended and people are demonstrating an intense desire to learn more. People ask probing questions and make keen observations. A cheer arose in the dining room when those seated near the window observed the green flash. People left their tables and looked when the 31-hour moon was spotted. All of the lectures that I have attended since the 11th have been standing room only. I hope this renewed sense of curiosity in people is permanent and contagious! As a science teacher, it is great to see people respond to natural phenomena with wonder and excitement. I hope I can use the pictures and videos as well as my personal experience to convey this to my students. I hope it doesn’t require a total eclipse to spark people’s curiosity about our world and the universe!
Lens flare in long exposure shows chromosphere

Dan Burns – July, 1991

In the next eclipse post I will share my experience observing the 1998 total eclipse of the Sun in Aruba. I will offer some advice for observing the eclipse this year. In the meantime, make your travel plans. I already have my substitute teacher lined up! Here is a one-stop place for information about this eclipse:

I will be helping to put on this event in Madras, Oregon, maybe I will see you there:

1 comment:

Troha said...


I appreciate your story as we prepare for the next eclipse. I live in Wilsonville, OR which is about 10 miles north of the band of totality. Madras is definitely the place to be. I hope you have plans to get there a few days early. With the numbers of people coming for it and the lack of roads going to Madras, I am certain you are in for a traffic laden trip. I am driving about 15 miles south on I-5 to be in the band at a friend's house. Even with that short trip on a major interstate, I am worried enough to go the day before. Good luck, safe travels, and let's pray for clear skies.