Tag Archives: sun

An Experience of a Lifetime: My 1999 Eclipse Adventure

Back in 1999 I saw a total solar eclipse in Europe, and it was a life-altering experience.  I wrote about it back then, but was never entirely happy with the article.  This week I’ve revised it.  It could still benefit from some editing and revision (comments welcome), but I think it’s now a good read.  It’s full of intellectual observations, but there are powerful emotions too.

If you’re interested, you can read it as a pdf, or just scroll down.



A Luminescent Darkness: My 1999 Eclipse Adventure

© Matt Strassler 1999

After two years of dreaming, two months of planning, and two hours of packing, I drove to John F. Kennedy airport, took the shuttle to the Air France terminal, and checked in.  I was brimming with excitement. In three days time, with a bit of luck, I would witness one the great spectacles that a human being can experience: a complete, utter and total eclipse of the Sun. Continue reading

A Solar Eclipse Tomorrow (Sunday)

Appropriate for General Readership

Tomorrow there will be a solar eclipse (i.e., the moon will pass between the earth and the sun, blocking the sun’s light.) Those of us on the east coast of the United States who wake up to a clear sky at dawn will see the rising sun partially eclipsed, as much as half blocked in many places. [Don’t forget that in the US the clocks are changing tonight, so dawn is one hour earlier, as the clock tells it, than it was today; in New York City sunrise is at 6:30 am tomorrow.] Meanwhile, a substantial partial eclipse will be visible across most of Africa, and a less substantial one in parts of southern Europe.  And a little sliver of central Africa will be fortunate enough to see one of nature’s most extraordinary spectacles: a total eclipse of the sun, where for a couple of minutes the sky suddenly goes almost dark, the stars come into view, and the pink prominences and silvery corona of the sun glow and shimmer in the darkness of the moon’s shadow.

Really, this ought to have been scheduled for Halloween.  Because if you didn’t know to expect a total solar eclipse, and you didn’t know what was going on, there’d be nothing more terrifying.

Remember: Except in the truly dark heart of a total eclipse, looking at the sun for even a few moments can destroy your eyes; either use specially designed “eclipse glasses” (ordinary sunglasses are completely unsafe) or use a pinhole in a piece of cardboard to project the sun’s image onto a piece of paper or a wall. [As I described here, carefully placed binoculars pointed at a piece of paper or wall will work too — but do not look through them!!! just let the sun’s image go through.] For those watching at sunrise, if there is cloud or haze in the east that dims the sunlight, you can look for a few moments — but make it very quick!


A number of transitions to talk about:

First, I’m participating in a panel discussion today (Thursday June 7th) on the transition that has seen me add science writer and popularizer to my resume’. Here’s the link… free tickets required, click here for details and ticketsSponsored by SoNYC (Science online New York City), panel discussion entitled “Reaching out of the Ivory Tower”, about the experiences of scientists who are reaching out to the public. Panelists: Ethan Perlstein, Sarah Weisberg, Matt Strassler, Jeanne Garbarino.  Location and time: Weiss 305, Rockefeller University, East 66th and York Ave. New York, NY, 7:00 PM.   Presenting science to the public in a digestible but honest form is something I feel is important, and I’ll have a few words to say about why I chose to do it now and why via a website and blog. And then I guess the floor will be open to questions, so come on by and ask one!

Reminder: again in New York, Saturday June 16th at 2pm, I’ll be giving a lecture (click here for details):  THE EINSTEIN OBSESSION: SCIENCE, MYTH AND PUBLIC PERCEPTION.

Next: I hope you all enjoyed seeing Venus in transit across the Sun Tuesday, in whatever method you chose. If you missed it live, there are of course opportunities to see films of the event — and they’ll save you time, since they’re all speeded up so that the hours pass in a minute or so. Nice views of Venus are complemented by several good-sized sunspots that are roughly the size of the Earth. Venus, you may recall, is the same size as the Earth, but as it was only a third as far away as the Sun yesterday, it appeared three times larger in radius (10 times larger in surface radius) than those sunspots. I managed to see it with the naked eye (with eclipse glasses), but just barely… so tiny! (By the way, if you missed my article on how a transit of Venus was used to obtain the first high-precision measurement of the distance to the sun, here’s the link.)

Here’s one of my own best shots, which I show you not because you can’t find better shots on the internet but because I have learned that most people do not realize you can get such nice views of the sun with so little work.

Venus in transit, at bottom.  Several sunspots dot the central region of the sun’s disk.  Photo of projection through binoculars onto white screen.  Image has been darkened slightly to sharpen contrast between sun and background.  Photo: M. Strassler 2012, all rights reserved.

It’s really quite easy.  And though there won’t be any more transits of Venus for us to see, there will be bigger sunspots, transits of Mercury, and solar eclipses to watch over the coming 15 years, so you may as well learn how to do this. You just aim the binoculars, big side toward the sun (as though someone were going to look at the sun — BUT DON’T LET ANYONE LOOK, of course), in the rough direction of the sun, wiggle the binoculars until the shadow of the binoculars becomes as small as it possibly can (which tells you they are aligned with the sun) and at that point the sun will shine through the two sides of the binoculars, giving you two images. Put a lens cover on one of the sides if you want to just get one image. Then let the image project onto something white and smooth that can serve as a screen. By moving the screen forward or back you can get a larger or smaller image; by using the focus on the binoculars you can bring the image of the sun into focus. Works great!

Here’s a picture, taken in a similar way, from the annular eclipse last month — a transit of the moon, even though we don’t usually call it that — taken the same way. I like this shot (though focus is imperfect and it was taken from a funny angle) because where the moon’s shadow touches the sun’s limb you can see a bit of light shining between mountain ranges on the moon!

A few seconds before annularity begins during the annular eclipse of the sun on May 20, 2012. Note, in the region where the moon’s silhouette touches the sun’s limb, a patch of sunlight shining through the mountain ranges on the moon. Light and dark regions at left and right of photo are due to shadows on the projection screen.  Photo: M. Strassler 2012, all rights reserved.

Venus, passing between the Sun and the Earth on Tuesday, has now transitioned from an object in the evening sky to one in the morning sky; if you want to see it, large and a very thin crescent through binoculars, you’ll need to get up early, before sunrise.  Not yet, though; it will be a few days before Venus is far enough from the Sun to pick out in the dawn sky.  For now, you can see Venus via the SOHO satellite, which blots out the sun so what’s nearby can be observed.

A final transition: Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury was one of the 20th century’s great science fiction writers, and I especially enjoyed reading his stories because he didn’t write classic geeky science fiction. His work was much more thoughtful and human than that. I think one could make a case that what made his writing unique was that he didn’t separate science from the rest of life.  It’s a good example for the rest of us to follow.

Transit Day

I hope you’re all ready for today’s transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.  You certainly can’t have missed that it’s happening, given the media hype.  (Look at the website http://transitofvenus.nl/wp/, their post from yesterday in particular, for all sorts of useful resources, including timing for the event in various locations, and on-line resources for you to watch in case clouds interfere at your location. UPDATE: that website is overwhelmed. In the continental U.S. transit begins just after 6 pm Eastern, 3 pm Pacific, differing by a few minutes from place to place; and sunset will occur before the transit is over. One online location to watch the transit is http://events.slooh.com/)   But — let me be the first to warn you — this is going to be very cool, but it isn’t going to be a spectacular event like a big meteor shower or a total solar eclipse or even a total lunar eclipse.  It’s going to be subtle, slow, and potentially very boring, unless you have the right mindset (or a truly excellent telescope, properly filtered for sun viewing).  So here are some suggestions: Continue reading

The Longest Sunset

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!]

Three Crescents and a Ring

Hi all! I said that posts would be sparse for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t realize quite how sparse! But I’m gradually getting back on-line here.

Right now, what’s occupying my attention for the next 48 hours is all in the sky: three crescents, and a ring. I’ll be brief, but if you want more explanation about the geometry involved, you might want to read my very relevant article about geometry and the beauty of the heavens. Continue reading