Memories of Eclipses past
In 1970, I was an undergraduate studying physics at MIT. I knew why I was there, I wanted to know how the world worked. Luckily, a total solar eclipse was coming near MIT and part of knowing about the world is seeing the world so I decided to go to Monomoy Island, just off the elbow of Cape Cod to see the eclipse. When I arrived at Cape Cod to try to find transport to the island I noticed that the tide was very high, many docks were underwater. The alignment of the sun and the moon during an eclipse leads to very high and low tides. A shuttle boat took us to Monomoy and we walked down the coast trying to enter the region of totality. I knew that I was going to be right on the edge of totality.
I set up my telescope to project an image of the partial eclipse. As an hour passed the world began to grow dim. The light became strange and reddish. But the sky remained clear. As totality approached I looked up briefly to see the diamond ring effect, one bright region of the sun still shining around the moon. Then the sun blinked out except for a few Bailey's beads. Bits of the solar photosphere shining through valleys on the moon. The beads turned red as the photosphere was covered and the chromosphere remained. Finally the corona burst forth in its rayed glory of dim light. Then all too quickly Bailey's beads returned on the other side of the moon. followed by a diamond ring and a return to a partial eclipse. Wow! What an amazing spectacle. My body responded in ways I never imagined possible. I got goose bumps and the hair stood up on my back as the sky became dark. The light surrounding me and the light show in the sky were amazing.I wanted more.
(A side story, The boat we took to Monomoy looked like a last minute operation, we paid for a round trip ticket and hoped that it would actually show up to ake us back to the mainland. However I knew that it was illegal to camp on Monomoy Island. So my back-up plan was to build a fire on the island, and when the Coast Guard came to tell us to get off the island we'd say, "make us!" At least that way we'd be in a mainland jail. The boat captain did return to pick us up, but the rewturn process lasted late into the night. As we sat around the fire two headlights from a Coast Guard amphibious DUCKW vehicle crossed over to our fire from the mainland. The Coast Guardsman called down to the group around the fire, "are you all OK?" We replied "yes." And so I issed my chance to ride in a DUCKW.)
Twenty-three years later I got my chance for more. I traveled to the Atacama desert in Northern Chile to see an eclipse. My Friend Bob Ayers and I rented a car in Arica and drove east on Chilean Highway 11, to Llago Chungara in Lauca National Park. At the national park we were informed that we would have to leave, only groups with reservations would be allowed to stay in the park. Undeterred we drove out of the park and into the desert. There was no one around. East of us Guillatire Volcano was actively belching steam eruptions, around us a heard of Alpaca grazed the sparse vegetation. We were alone. High clouds threatened to block our view but we managed to see the total eclipse through a hole in the clouds. The corona reached out from the sun in great fat streamers like a spider with hairy white legs hanging in the sky. Jupiter was visible. The horizon glowed an eerie red as sunlight hitting the earth all around us leaked into the shadow. After the eclipse I was tired, I had experienced so much in just a few minutes. I still wanted more.
And so in 1999 I signed up with the Exploratorium to go to Amasya Turkey as the on-site host of the eclipse broadcast. I relish the opportunity to see two more minutes of totality, and to guide web visitors from all over the world as they watch the eclipse. I hope the watchers of our webcast eclipse will experience just enough of an echo of the real experience to motivate them to go to see a total solar eclipse in person.
See it on the web at
Visit the Exploratorium web pages for more information on eclipses:
Go to the next story
Links to other eclipse stories:
Eclipse Disaster, the story of a partial solar eclipse in the Exploratorium's front yard.
Going Up? Get Fit! Adapting to high altitude for the eclipse in Chile.
Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty
27 July 99