Of Particular Significance

The Longest Sunset

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 05/22/2012

What would the Grand Canyon look like if it had sunset light without the sunset shadows?  Sunday’s annular solar eclipse provided a hint of an answer:

The Grand Canyon from the North Rim (Cape Royal), during the annular solar eclipse of May 20th, 2012, at maximum eclipse (“ring of fire”). Photo Matt Strassler, all rights reserved.

Quite a first visit to the North Rim of the canyon.  Maximum eclipse occurred an hour before sunset, and the sun set with a small piece of the moon’s silhouette still covering its disk.  As a result, the amount of sunlight remained low for the entire hour, bathing the canyon in the low light that allows its layers of color and geological time to be more easily seen.

Meanwhile, in the other direction the sun was still far too bright to look at with the naked eye, or photograph without a filter. Lacking both a proper filter and a tripod, this is all I could manage with my camera, I’m afraid:

The annular eclipse of May 20th, 2012, showing the moon traveling across the sun, along with various unfortunate camera and filter effects. What can I say? I’m an amateur photographer. Photo Matt Strassler, all rights reserved anyway.

I think that when you look at photos of an eclipse (certainly I find this for myself) it is easy to miss the visceral nature of the experience. When you are watching it happen, you can see (through a proper filter, or with a projection), second by second, the slow but steady glide of the moon across the sun. You can detect the ring of sunlight changing shape, from a perfect circle to one that is thicker on one side than the other, and finally turning back into a crescent. The process is a dynamic one, as well as a visual feast. And this is part of what makes it so beautiful — not just what one sees with the eyes, but what one feels as a witness to the steady motion of the heavens.

[p.s. don’t miss the other two crescents to see right now: crescent Venus and crescent Moon near each other in the western sky tonight!]

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8 Responses

  1. DonofExistence
    As a retired deputy director of the National Park Service I am thrilled to see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on this site. After all, physics is about the beauty and wonder of it all; and there is no place of earth more representative of that beauty and wonder than the Grand Canyon. Just think how the emergent properties of water worked over millions of years to sculpt such a masterpiece of nature. Thanks, Matt, for sharing this with us.

  2. I remember seeing, many years ago, a woodcut print of (I think) Isaac Newton under a tree, looking down at the “sickle suns” on the ground!

  3. ‘:-) you meant “eclipse” rather than “sunset” of course…’ Yep you got me! I meant that I’d only seen one eclipse. Unfortunately I haven’t yet been lucky enough to catch a sunset 😉 But I think we were probably looking at the same eclipse as mine experience was England in 1999.

  4. I completely agree with your last point. I’ve only seen one (very nearly) complete sunset and it was truly eery. Particularly the way the birds fell silent. It was a strange experience.

    The Grand Canyon photo looked great as well.

    1. 🙂 you meant “eclipse” rather than “sunset” of course…

      I saw the total eclipse in France in 1999. You must must must see at least one of these sometime in your life, if at all possible.

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