Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Over the past weekend, there was a fair bit of news coverage of a solar eclipse that was visible, among other places, in northern California, near where our friend Uncle Skip lives (as Suldog likes to say, he's not my uncle, but he's someone's).  In fact Skip himself made mention of the eclipse in his blog.  And in the course of commenting on Skip's 'eclipse' post, it occurred to me that I could post about my own experiences with eclipses, in the short time that I've been riding the earth around the sun.

(I should hasten to say that I am not speaking here about ellipses, the 'conic-section' curves that look like stretched-out circles (or squashed circles, depending on how you want to look at it), even though ellipses are extremely fascinating, and in fact, I've mentioned them before in this humble blog of mine.) (Just wanted to be clear on that. . .)

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah. . .

The first eclipse that I remember actually seeing happened in 1963, I think; I was seven years old.  Our family was staying at a cottage Up North, although we hadn't yet moved up there.  I don't remember that much about it, except that it was summertime, and it was a bright, hot, sunny day; we spent the day playing on the beach.  And my mom was terribly worried that we were gonna look directly at the sun, trying to see the eclipse, and thereby render ourselves blind.  Because that's all that the newspapers said, in advance coverage of the eclipse - "DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE SUN TO VIEW THE ECLIPSE!!!  IF YOU DO, YOU'LL GO BLIND!!!  AND NO-ONE WANTS THAT, DO THEY!?!"  Which tangetially reminded me of another common warning of impending blindness that we sometimes heard in those days, but that's another story for another time (or, you know, not; 'cuz I'm just a tad less, um, forthcoming than some bloggers. . .).

Well, by the time I was seven, I had looked at the sun many times - squinting tightly, filtering the full intensity of the sunlight through my eyelashes (or however that works), so I knew that, if I did it right, and only peeked for a second (or less), that I'd be OK.  I don't recall if I actually did that, or not, or if the threats of blindness cowed me into compliance.  I vaguely recall that one of the very few clouds that day passed between me and the sun, allowing me to clearly see the disk of the sun, with a bite taken out of the side of it.

And I remember the ghostly dim light at the height of the eclipse (I think it was something like 74% of totality at the peak, where we were).  It was really strange, especially for seven-year-old me, experiencing it for the first time.  The world got noticeably dimmer, sort-of like it did around sunset, but the sun was high in the sky, and the shadows were the short ones of mid-day, not the long, extended ones around sunrise and sunset.

I'm not sure how long the eclipse lasted - it's usually an hour or two from start to finish - but in the fullness of time, the dragon barfed up the chunk of the sun that he'd swallowed, and the world returned to normal. . .


I really couldn't tell you how many eclipses I've witnessed in the course of my short life; maybe eight or ten?  I recall that most of the ones I've seen have been in the realms of 70-80% total, at their peak, very similar to that long-ago one when I was seven.  I recall one that occurred while we were in San Diego visiting my birth-mother (1991?), that went total somewhere down in Baja California, maybe 600-800 miles from us.  We briefly discussed going down to see the total eclipse in the Baja (and when I say 'briefly', I'm talking about seconds, not minutes), but decided not to.  That one might have been 80%, or something like that.

Without a doubt, the most spectacular solar eclipse that I've ever witnessed occurred in 1994.  It was an 'annular' eclipse (from the Latin 'annulus': 'ring') (as opposed to 'anal', which also refers to 'where the sun don't shine' but in an entirely different way), meaning that the moon was farther than usual from the earth, and the sun perhaps nearer, so that the moon's disk was slightly smaller than the sun's.  Thus, when the moon passed directly in front of the sun, it didn't completely obscure it, but left a bright ring of the sun's disk visible around the perimeter.  If the celestial geometry had been just a bit different, it would have been total, but alas. . .

That particular eclipse had its 'maximum occultation' along a band that went directly through mid-Michigan, including Our Town, and at its peak, it was 96% total.  The local newspaper wrote special 'eclipse' pieces for at least a week in advance, telling us how best to view the eclipse, what features would be visible where, etc.  Among other things, they told us that a #14 welder's shade was suitable for direct viewing of the sun.  Armed with that knowledge, I visited a local welding supply shop on my lunch hour, to buy a #14 shade.  The proprietor seemed a bit perplexed.  "You're the third or fourth guy that's been in here this week, asking for a #14 shade; what's going on?"  So I explained to him about the upcoming eclipse, and my desire to view it through the darkened glass.  "Well, I don't carry a #14 shade," he said.  "Nobody would ever want anything that dark for normal welding work."  I was disappointed, but he told me, "The shade values just add together - if you hold a #8 and a #6 together, you'll get the same shade as a #14."  So I bought a #8 and a #6, and the shop-owner was happy to sell twice as many shades.

The newspaper also published a map of the area, showing what parts of the local area would be able to view the eclipse at is maximum, with the sun's ring fully visible all around the circumference of the moon.  Working as I did in an engineering office (and virtually all engineers having grown up as science nerds), there was much water-cooler discussion of the eclipse in the days leading up to it.  A group of us made plans to play hooky for a couple hours on Eclipse Day, to watch it all happen.

We were particularly fascinated by a region marked out on the maps in the paper as the 'graze zone', where the edge of the moon's disk would 'graze' the edge of the sun's disk as it passed in front of it, producing an effect known as 'Baily's Beads', or 'The String of Pearls', in which the hills and valleys on the moon's surface uncovered the sun's disk very locally, so that, from the earth it would appear as an arc of little bright dots, arcing between the 'horns' of the crescent remnant of the sun's disk.  The 'graze zone' was very narrow - measured in yards, rather than miles - but part of it crossed the county fair grounds, so we determined to find a place at the fairgounds for our eclipse-viewing pleasure.

Armed with the newspaper map, we found a place securely within the 'graze zone' where we could park our car without being in anyone's way, who was at the fair grounds on 'normal business'.  Then we got out of the car, bearing a variety of viewing gadgets - the cardboard box with the pinhole, among a few others, and my welding shades (I didn't need the whole helmet, although I think we brought one, just in case).  Then we spent the next hour or so watching as the moon passed, ever-so-slowly, across the face of the sun, first looking like someone had whacked the sun with a ball-peen hammer, then looking like progressively larger bites were being taken out of it.  As the time approached the peak, the sun looked like a sliver of a shining fingernail in the sky, and I had my welding shades pretty much straight over my head.  The air around us seemed almost a deathly gray as the eclipse went 94. . . 95. . . 96% total.

Then, all of a sudden, we saw them.  The map in the paper had  been right!  An arc of tiny points of light crossed between the horns of the sun's crescent, twinkling and blinking as the moon - and we - moved, and the sun's light filtered through the valleys on the lunar surface.  Short of a total eclipse itself, it was about the coolest thing I could ever imagine seeing in the sky (Comet Hale-Bopp was pretty cool, but not this cool).

In fairly short order - a few minutes, really - the moon began passing off the sun's disk.  The 'String of Pearls' disappeared, and the bright crescent in the sky began to grow larger again.  We packed up  our gear and returned to the office, and by the time we went home at the end of the day, we had our good-old round sun back again.

I did take a couple pictures, with my regular old 35mm camera, with the welding shade over the lens, but I didn't have nearly the set-up required, nor fast enough film.  I ended up with something that looked like a glowing green horseshoe; when I see it, I remember the moment, and what I really saw, but it is no kind of documentation of the event.  (*sigh*)

At any rate, that was one extremely cool event, and it all happened less than 10 miles from my home. . .


  1. Great story ...and you probably could've alluded to an ellipsis, too.

  2. Being near in age, we share the same "fond" memories of those newspaper (and television, and radio, and teacher, and parent) warnings about looking directly at the sun. Interesting question: Have you ever heard of a documented case of "eclipse-caused blindness"? I haven't, but now that I mention it, I think I'll go put it into Google. Hold on - I'll be back.

    Well, that was scary and informational. I guess it's true, because I read it on the internet.

  3. the supermoon was obscured by ttal cloud cover and the eclipes was on the west coast. i am feeling right well gyped out of the recent astronomical fun.

  4. Skip - You're right. . . I probably should have. . . Darn it. . .

    Suldog - Well, I've never actually known anyone who went blind from watching an eclipse. . .

    The article you cite makes some good points, I suppose; the dimmer light could tempt one to linger his eyes longer on the sun's disk, etc. But given just a small dollop of common sense. . .

    Lime - I'm so sorry; your town obviously needs to do a better job of planning its cloudy days in advance. . .

    But you must have seen some of the Venus-Jupiter Conjunction this spring, right?

  5. We more or less missed it. Driving on the highway with the sun to our rear. I tried looking back at it a couple times but did nothing more than hurt my eyes. :(

    I remember a full eclipse (or thereabouts) in elementary school. My teacher took our class outdoors and, with strict instructions to NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN, we experienced the dimming of the daytime to a hazy dusk. Very cool.

    I must complement you on your amazing memory. I don't know if I live my life in a fog, but very few things from my past actually flesh out into full-fledged memories. *sigh* I blame it on undiagnosed ADD.

  6. Flutter - A good memory is one of the great blessings of my life (altho, it can have its 'curse' aspects, as well. . .)

    Your comment makes me realize that we might even have seen something like 60% occultation here in Michigan, but it would've been pretty late in the day. . .

    There was a total eclipse that passed thru SE Saskatchewan and central Manitoba on 26Feb1979 (which was ~80% total here in Michigan, so it's probably one of the ones I sorta remember); but that seems too long ago for you to have been in grade school. . . ;)

    And Lime - You might find it interesting to know that the 'supermoon' and the annular eclipse are related. . . Since the moon was closest to earth for the full moon of May 6, it was close to its farthest from earth at the opposite end of its orbit, two weeks later, on May 20; thus, its disk was near to the smallest it gets, so it couldn't completely obscure the sun's disk. . .

    Or, you know, you might not. . .


  7. I did see the supermoon, only because I happened to be out driving that night. I don't think I've ever really seen any other sky's either too cloudy or the view is blocked by all the trees I'm always surrounded by, or it's happening at 1 am and I'm sleeping!

  8. I've seen a couple events here and there and usually use a regular old welding mask to view 'em, never worried much about its rating ... it just works.

  9. Bijoux - Oh, I understand. I've gotten up in the middle of the night, once or twice, to watch a lunar eclipse, but yeah, the middle of the night is for sleeping. . .

    Now some stuff, like comets (especially Hale-Bopp), or planetary conjunctions (as mentioned above), will appear over the course of weeks/months, and you just have to know where to look. Or, you might see it and say, "Wow, that's kinda cool", without knowing what it is.

    But, if you didn't know there was an eclipse going on (and especially if you weren't outdoors), you could easily miss it entirely. . .

    Xavier - If it weren't for welders, and their equipment, eclipse-viewing would be a lot less fun, for sure. . .

  10. The one thing I don't mind staying up for is meteor showers. Love e some shooting stars, 'specially when they come by the handful!!

  11. Ah, yes, the shooting stars. . .

    The summer camp I've often served at has roughly coincided with the Leonid shower, occasionally. A few of us, who didn't have to sleep with the kids, would go out in a boat and just watch the sky for shooters. Good, good times.

    And now you've reminded me of another really cool story that I'm gonna have to post sometime. . .