Total solar eclipse fans chase a moment in the sun
When the moon blots out the sun’s blinding rays on Sunday, a sliver of the Earth’s surface will be plunged into eerie darkness.
Travelers who have crossed thousands of miles to witness the celestial show will gaze at the sky and, for a few minutes, see a thing most people never get to see: a halo of fire — the sun’s corona — flickering around the edges of the silhouette of the moon.
But Jay Pasachoff, over on Easter Island, may be looking down more than up — calibrating his instruments, checking for technical glitches, peering through lenses. He doesn’t need to look up. He’s seen 28 total eclipses, and 50 eclipses in all.
The Williams College astronomy professor saw his first total eclipse at age 16, when he was a freshman at Harvard. Flying with classmates above the cloud line in a DC-3 just north of Boston in October 1959, he gazed at the spectacle through the double-pane airplane window. “I could see it low in the sky, see it straight out — and it was wonderful,” he said.
He fell in love.
He’s looked up the details on eclipses set to occur in upcoming decades. He has a list of them out to the year 3000.
To some, such single-mindedness might be considered extreme. Not to Tom Thornbury, 68, of Bel-Air, who’s racked up seven total eclipses so far. He recalls dolphins doing back flips in the Sea of Cortez during his first, in 1991. Six years later, as the corona glowed above Mongolia, he proposed to his now wife.
Nor to Alex Filippenko, a UC Berkeley astronomer who’s seen 10 total eclipses and is awaiting his 11th on the cruise ship Paul Gauguin, in waters southeast of Tahiti.
“The first is in some ways the best. Most people I’ve met become transformed by the experience,” Filippenko said. (Eclipses aren’t a big slice of his day job; quasars and black holes are more his thing.)
If they don’t feel the wonder, he added, “I think they’re brain-dead.”
Some eclipse chasers describe the feeling they get during totality — those moments when the sun is fully covered — as spiritual, others as a high. The self-described “coronaphiles” often form tight networks and eagerly log the minutes spent in totality at websites such as https://www.eclipse-chasers.com.
“A lot of people say it’s as good as sex. Well, it’s right up there. It’s close,” Thornbury said. “It makes you realize how extraordinary this universe in which we live actually is.”
Solar eclipses are the result of a mathematical coincidence: The sun’s diameter is roughly 400 times that of the moon’s, but it’s also roughly 400 times as far away. So when sun and moon line up right — as they do roughly every 18 months along a given path over Earth — the moon almost perfectly covers the sun.
Each total eclipse is unique, aficionados say, because so many factors are at play. The corona can appear sparser at some times and more dynamic at others, depending on where the sun is in its 11-year sun spot cycle. Bad weather might obscure the sun at given points. And the length of each totality will vary — as will the path along which totality can be seen.
Anywhere outside that narrow path, the sun will peek over the moon’s edge, destroying the effect. That’s why eclipse chasers often must travel to some of the world’s most remote lands — and even its seas, as with Sunday’s eclipse. For this event, the path of totality will cross eastward through the South Pacific, making landfall only at the Cook Islands and Easter Island until it reaches the tip of South America.
Eclipses have long been a way of life for the Pasachoff family — Pasachoff’s wife, Naomi, also works at Williams College, and their daughters Deborah and Eloise often accompanied them on eclipse expeditions as children. Even when Pasachoff went solo, the family was standing by at home, on call.
“There’s always eclipse errands. It’s a very drama-filled lifestyle,” said Deborah Pasachoff, who has observed eight total eclipses, the first when she was an infant.
Days before the 1983 eclipse in Java, Indonesia, Naomi Pasachoff got a panicked call from her husband. A digital data recorder wasn’t working, and Java wasn’t known for its spare electronics parts. Naomi dug up the home phone number for the president of Tektronix, manufacturer of the recorder. The executive located a replacement in Boston.
Naomi asked a colleague to pick up the device and buy a plane ticket to Java on her husband’s American Express card. The colleague talked his way through Indonesian customs by showing officials an article Jay Pasachoff had written for National Geographic about a 1970 eclipse. He arrived at the observation site just in time.
In the early days, before wide use of cellphones and e-mail, the parents could be incommunicado for weeks at a time when they were off studying eclipses.
“It was always ‘Where are Mom and Dad?’ instead of ‘How are Mom and Dad?’ ” said Deborah Pasachoff, now 33 and living in Pasadena. Their mother devised a system to keep the daughters in touch — a prepared package of letters, typewritten on turtle-themed stationery, describing what the parents were up to at each step.
“Every day,” Deborah said, “whoever was staying with us would read a letter to us — ‘I hope you have a good time with so and so this afternoon … today we went to see the Taj Mahal.’ ”
When the daughters could go with their parents, they often served as educational emissaries, instructing local schoolchildren on how to view an eclipse safely (fine to look straight up when the eclipse is total, but an eye-searing no-no when the sun is partially covered).
And they’d look out for their dad as he fiddled with his instruments during those crucial few minutes of dark.
“We always have to remind him … you can take your eyeball away from these lenses for a minute.”
In many ancient mythologies, eclipses were seen as a bad omen, said Isaac Kikawada of Mountain View, a retired professor of Babylonian studies at UC Berkeley who got hooked after viewing his first total eclipse in 2001 and who takes amateur photos of the spectacles. (He is on Easter Island with his wife, Heidi Gerster.) Even now, people in some parts of the world act strangely when confronted by eclipses, beating on pots and pans, for example, or sacrificing chickens.
“Until modern times, an eclipse was something to be feared.... Now we can predict exactly to the second where it happens,” Kikawada said. “I celebrate this triumph of science.”
The ancient Babylonians identified the 18-year Saros cycle, which can be used to predict solar and lunar eclipses. More than 2,000 years later, a 1919 eclipse played a key role in proving Einstein’s theory of general relativity, by demonstrating how light would bend around massive objects like the sun.
These days, scientists like Pasachoff head to solar eclipses because the observations they make reveal facts about the nature and behavior of the sun — and, by extension, more distant stars.
They are also trying to understand how the corona, the sun’s “atmosphere” of plasma, can somehow be nearly 1,000 times hotter than the solar surface. Pasachoff and others believe that studying how the sun’s magnetic field interacts with the corona could help pave the way to building clean-energy generators on Earth.
So he feels it’s hardly overkill to pursue eclipse after eclipse. All he gets, after all, are a few minutes every year or two to move his work ahead.
“If you were a heart surgeon,” he said, “and somebody told you if you went to Easter Island next week [you could] look inside a human heart for four minutes and 45 seconds, no one would question you if two years later you said, ‘That was great, but I wanna do it somewhere else at the next opportunity.’ ”