The great eclipse of 2006
Perhaps you have not noticed it, but there is a secret and growing brotherhood in our very midst. You might have overhead a group of its members at an amateur astronomy meeting somewhere, or perhaps just an innocent conversation over the water-cooler. And I can now count myself a member. We are the people who have witnessed a total solar eclipse, something that can not be done without becoming, well, a bit changed.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In the beginning, the eclipse was just an afterthought for me. I had been lured by a free trip to Egypt to serve as a "host" astronomer on an eclipse tour. I didn't need to be asked twice to take a trip to the Middle East; that was an area of the world I was aching to explore. And hey, there was going to be an eclipse too. Great.
But I had no idea. Really, I hate to say this, but there's nothing like it. I had seen partial solar eclipses before, but now, I'm afraid, I just can't qualify those as real eclipse experiences. I can see why people get addicted to this stuff. The main topic of conversation before the actual eclipse was how many eclipses everyone had seen before, and as soon as we got our capacity to speak back, people were already planning how to get to the next one.
I'm not surprised I was a little over-awed. After all, the excursion had started with a thorough tour of ancient archeological sites. I exhausted my supply of superlatives the first day at the Great Pyramids, and didn't have anything decent left over for the Temple of Karnak or Abu Simbel. By the time we had trekked across the entire north coast of Egypt to get to the Libyan border (the best viewing site in Egypt), my head was already pretty full of wonders. Out past the town of El-Saloum, bedouins had been hired to put their tents up on the high, windy plateau where thousands of tourists were gathering. The town was under a huge security shut-down, which forced us to get to the site many hours before the eclipse began. We didn't have any problem finding our site, but we did have to kick a bunch of elderly German tourists out of our tent (squatters!). Once that had been settled, crates of high-performance camera and video equipment, so laboriously pushed through all the security checks (with a bit of baksheesh to grease the wheels), were pulled off the buses while the more territorial members of our tour rushed to claim their viewing sites. This actually provided a bit of drama, as we had been warned not to stray too far from our assigned area; there were probably live mines nearby. I had to keep pulling back a lovely and spry 80-something-year-old man who kept seeing interesting wild flowers over the next hill....
Even as the partial eclipse began, I had no idea what I was in for. A big cheer went up when "first contact" occurred; a tiny dent in the side of the sun. It would take another hour for the moon to move completely in front of the sun, and since there were no clouds or impending sandstorms to worry about, the suspense was purely pleasurable. And so we settled in. As everyone there knew, the sun is still eye-searingly bright even with only a sliver left uncovered. The sky does get darker as the eclipse progresses, but the human eye is very good at adjusting to slowly changing light levels. You don't so much notice the sky getting darker as the air getting cooler. Sunlight doesn't seem to have any warmth associated with it. And then, moments before totality, the universe seemed to unravel.
It's worth noting that total eclipses of the sun are one of the lovely and strange perks of living on the planet Earth. In terms of the solar system as a whole, they're really quite rare. A lot of things have to be just right in order to get one. Think about it: isn't it amazing that the sun and moon appear, at least under certain circumstances, to be exactly the same size in the sky? In reality, of course, the sun and the moon are nowhere near the same size. The moon is roughly one quarter the diameter of the Earth, while the sun is about 100 times larger than the Earth. Do the math, and that makes the sun about 400 times larger than the moon. But the sun is also much farther away than the moon; about 400 times farther away. Get it? The spacing of the moon and the sun are exactly right so that they appear to be the same size. And yes, that really is just a wonderful coincidence.