Eclipse Chasers: What's the Lure?

Jun. 20, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

The SETI Institute’s Seth Shostak is off to the eclipse in Africa. He definitely wants to go…

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“Well, watch this: my palm will get in front of the Sun.” His swings his hand in front of my face. “Admit it. You’re going to see the lions. Or the hyenas. Or whatever other scruffy carnivores they’ve got wandering the Zambian landscape. You don’t need to see another eclipse.”

There’s something to what he says. Africa is a a lure, and the solar eclipse of June 21st will slide across some of its wilder parts. The only city of any size in its dusky path is Lusaka – not exactly a routine destination for tourists. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana – these are exotic sounds to someone for whom the Dark Continent was never more than a plump, colorful jigsaw puzzle on a schoolroom map. I’ll admit that I’m keen to see the game parks, the forgotten cities, and the terrifying cascades of Victoria Falls.

But I would go even if this eclipse were in New Jersey.

It’s odd and seemingly illogical, but there’s something unexpectedly fascinating about a total solar eclipse. Three thousand billion billion tons of cold rock glide in front of Old Sol. It gets dark, slowly at first, and then with a rush as the last slivers of the luminous Sun are eaten by the moon’s unseen disk.

For three-and-a-half minutes, there’s nothing but a quiet half-gloom. The sky – a blackish dome skirted by twilight – has a hole in it: a dark sky pierced by a still darker hole, ringed by wispy white streamers and stubby red flames. It’s something you don’t see everyday. And from Earth’s surface, you can’t.

The hour before totality, usually spent camped out in a field dotted with tourists, tripods, and telescopes, has its own drama. Eclipse chasers, slicked up in 30+ sun block, look like patrons in a 3-D movie with their shiny mylar glasses. They spend the last hour in impatient expectation, fiddling with their equipment and expressing quiet amazement at how difficult it is to point a camera Sun-ward when it’s sporting a lens longer than a bean pole.

This year’s eclipse will begin in the South Atlantic before scurrying across the knees of Africa. Thence it will sprint across the straits to Madagascar and suffer a quick extinction in the southern Indian Ocean. Rather coincidentally, this delicate dance between the orbiting moon and a spinning Earth takes place on the winter solstice (remember: this is the southern hemisphere). The shortest day of the year will be three minutes shorter still.

I’ve wondered whether there are other places amongst the starfields of the Milky Way where intelligent beings can watch an eclipse like this. It’s possible, but not probable. We are lucky that the moon, edging slowly away from Earth for 4 billion years, has reached a position where it can just cover the Sun. Four hundred times smaller than Sol, the moon happens to be four hundred times closer. You could call it a wonder of nature.

“But is it such a wonder to watch?” My brother is being deliberately provocative. “It isn’t as if you, and a few hundred million others, haven’t seen this sort of thing before.”

He’s right, sort of. In 585 BC, a solar eclipse packed enough dramatic punch to interrupt a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. No more. NASA now publishes a book with umbral paths, timings, durations, and what to eat for lunch the day of the event. Not too much wonder at there. It’s kind of like the loss of cinema innocence. When I was young, every film I saw was amazing. Now I know too much, and some of the wonder’s gone.

But when it comes to eclipses, not much of it is gone. Sure, anyone would be seduced by the thought of a tour to the African savannahs. But I swear that’s not it. This is more than a boondoggle jaunt to see dusty megafauna up-close and personal as they amble through the brush.

And yes, I’ll admit there’s more than the lure of big animals. Africa can claim the roots of us all. It’s possible that in some dry valley not overly far from our eclipse camp, the crude clay of our ancestors was shaped to the familiar form that we now call human. 

But honestly, that’s not it either. Nor is it simply the opportunity to get a voyeuristic glimpse of cosmic clockwork – to watch the celestial odometer tick over at 100,000 miles, as it were. 

No, it’s just the event itself. A total solar eclipse is totally awesome in every sense of that exhausted word. It’s an experience that no description can approximate. Earth, at middle age, is lucky to have total eclipses. I, in roughly the same circumstance, am lucky to watch.