8. Total Addiction: The Lure of Eclipses

Written August 2017

( This piece is adapted from an essay which I wrote shortly before I travelled to the USA to observe the total solar eclipse of 21 August 2017 – my sixth total eclipse trip, and as it turned out, my fourth successful one. One of the friends to whom I sent the essay is a Dutch lady, whom I met in Australia in 2012, and who is, like me, a veteran of several eclipses. She commented, “That’s so recognisable, I could have written it myself!” )

( A couple of notes, for the benefit of readers who are not astronomers.
A saros series is a series of related eclipses, which recur at regular intervals, every 18 years 10.32 days, in almost identical circumstances. There are many such series interleaved.
The total eclipse of 11 August 1999, whose track crossed Europe, was the only one visible from the UK within the lifetime of most people currently alive. Within the UK, it was total only in Cornwall and Devon in the south-west corner of England; very few people there actually saw it, as the weather didn’t cooperate. The eclipse of 21 August 2017 was the next one in the same saros series. )

As I write this piece, I’m preparing for my trip to the USA, to observe the “Great American Eclipse” from Jackson, Wyoming. By the time you read it, I will have been and returned. This is my sixth total eclipse trip; my success record so far is three out of five. This time, I hope to achieve the goal of seeing two successive eclipses of the same saros series – having already achieved the unenviable opposite!
So why do I repeatedly spend significant proportions of my income to travel thousands of miles, to see something which lasts a couple of minutes? I have often been asked by non-astronomers, perhaps understandably, why I need to see more than one eclipse – “Surely, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all!” In fact, the exact opposite is true; almost everyone who has seen one is determined to see another!
The title of this piece is taken from that of a book, Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser, by Kate Russo. I have a copy signed by the author, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Horncastle Astronomy Weekend three years ago. She will also be in Jackson. Total eclipses really are addictive – but as Kate says, “Unlike other addictions, this one doesn’t do you any harm – except perhaps to your bank balance!”
As Kate also points out, the term “eclipse chaser” is in fact a misnomer. We don’t actually “chase” eclipses at all, but rather do the opposite; we place ourselves ahead of the Moon’s shadow, and wait for it to reach us!
So what exactly is the lure of total eclipses, which drives this rather expensive hobby? Well, words can’t really describe it; you really just have to experience it. Note that I say “experience”, rather than just “see”! Obviously, the most important point is that you get to see things which you can’t see at any other time – prominences, the corona and the beautiful diamond ring. ( OK, you can see prominences at any time – but only if you have a purpose-built solar telescope with a H- a filter, which costs about the same as an intercontinental eclipse holiday! ) But then there is the sheer beauty and majesty of the event. I would defy anyone – at least anyone who isn’t utterly dead from the neck up – to see the diamond ring at Third Contact, and not be emotionally moved to some extent; I’ve seen middle-aged men moved to tears, and there are multi-eclipse veterans who still cry.
I’ve also heard some truly bizarre comments, from people who just don’t understand it. After the 1999 UK eclipse ( my first successful one, because I wasn’t in the UK! – I went to Bulgaria ), my dad told me that he had seen some film of it on TV, and it “just left him cold”. I tried to explain to him that there isn’t the slightest iota of comparison between “seeing it on the telly” and actually being there, and experiencing it for real! ( Live images of the imminent eclipse will of course be broadcast extensively on the internet, but as someone has very rightly pointed out in a forum, “Watching a live stream on the internet does not count as having seen it! You have only seen an eclipse if you were actually there!” ) Just a couple of days ago, as I write this, I had a similar conversation with a work colleague – an otherwise intelligent and educated person – who expressed his lack of interest in a tone close to belligerence. He actually said, “I’ve seen a picture of an eclipse; I know what it looks like! Why do you need to go to America to see one?” I told him the same thing about “not the slightest iota of comparison”, and he continued, “Why isn’t there? What’s the difference?” Well, I truly despair, to think that any intelligent person actually needs to ask me such a question – but here goes. Allow me to present an analogy…
One of my other interests, which I follow as passionately as astronomy, is the sport of boxing. While I appreciate that most people don’t share that interest, most do have an interest, to some degree, in some sport or other. So in the following paragraphs, you, dear reader, are invited to substitute boxing with whichever sport you follow, and my reference to a fight with any suitable major event! In the last three decades, I’ve been to a couple of hundred boxing shows, from small hall shows in local leisure centres to those with crowds of 40000 people in football stadia. I even once realised my lifelong dream, by flying specially to Las Vegas to see a major fight.
My dad – who is one of those extremely rare people who profess to have “absolutely no interest in any sport whatsoever” – has more than once asked me, “What’s the point of going to London/Cardiff/wherever, and paying loads of money, to watch a fight, when you can sit in your living room and watch it on the telly for nothing – and have a much better view?” Well, as anyone who follows a sport will appreciate, there is a gulf of difference between “watching it on the telly” and actually being there, and being part of it! While trying to get that through to my dad was like banging my head on a wall, I assume most readers will be able to relate to it, in terms of their own sport of choice.
As a case in point; in 1995, I was privileged to be present at London Arena, when Britain’s own Nigel Benn beat America’s Gerald McClellan, in what was far and away the greatest fight ever seen in this country. I won’t bore you with details, but they redefined the limits of sporting endurance, with the pace and sheer ferocity of the fight. Nigel was the huge underdog, but came through against all the odds. After the event, it took me three days to get my voice back… A work colleague asked me sarcastically whether my shouting myself hoarse had actually helped Nigel to win; well, given that he was being willed on by the noise of 12000 people all doing the same, of course it did!!!!! Those of us who were there didn’t simply watch it – we were part of it!
So, consider this comparison, for any sporting event of your own interest… Even if you’re not interested in sport, you can find similar comparisons, such as the difference between watching your favourite pop group on TV and going to see them live at a major arena. Or even better, if you like classical music, the difference between listening to Classic FM and going to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall!
Then, for a total eclipse, multiply all of that a thousandfold!!!!!
In any case, that “I’ve seen a picture of one” remark is surely logically equivalent to saying, “I don’t need to go and see the Great Wall of China, because I’ve seen a picture of it”, or “I don’t need to go to Kenya on safari, because I’ve seen a picture of a lion”.
Note that a few paragraphs back, I again used that word “experience”. This is why I say there can never be any remotest comparison with seeing pictures or film; an eclipse isn’t simply something you see, but something you experience – with all the senses! Well, three of them, anyway. In a very real sense, as well as seeing it, you also hear and feel it! You hear the sounds of nature change around you; in the last few minutes before totality, as the sky begins to darken, birds stop singing and insects stop chirping, as they are fooled into thinking it’s night, and everything falls eerily quiet. You feel the drop in temperature – if you’re in a hot country, and the temperature is, say, 30°C, it can drop by up to about eight degrees in a matter of minutes – and often the sudden breath of wind as a consequence thereof.
The very day I’m writing this, I’ve just discussed this with a friend who is a fellow multi-eclipse veteran. He said, “I find the last few minutes before totality a weird, spooky, hairs on the back of my neck experience.” I can relate to that; it is something close to eerie or “spooky”, even to those of us who fully understand the orbital dynamics of what’s happening!
Another case in point. In 1999, I and three friends - Don Martin and John and Elaine McCue – travelled to Bulgaria, to see the eclipse which no-one saw in Cornwall. On the day, there were just the four of us in a field ( while a couple of miles along the road, 10000 local people had descended on one small village, where an international universities’ group was camped ), so we were very much surrounded by the sounds of nature, with a cacophony of thousands of crickets chirping. Don, the only eclipse veteran among us ( my previous attempt had been defeated by weather ), told us that in the last few minutes before totality, everything would go quiet. I expected the sound to die down gradually, but I was wrong… At some point, as the light level dropped, all the crickets suddenly stopped chirping in unison – in a split second, as if someone had thrown a switch! And a few minutes after Third Contact, they all started again, equally instantaneously. Now that was weird!!!!
I said earlier that eclipses are addictive – and I swear I’m not making this story up… In 2006, one occurred in Turkey, in circumstances which made possible an ultra-cheap method of travelling to see it. By pure luck, the track passed over the resort town of Side – and out of season, when the hotels were empty. So a British tour company block-booked three hotels, chartered six flights from six different airports, and took 1600 people; we flew out the day before, stayed a single night, observed the eclipse from the hotels, and flew back a few hours later.
During the partial phase, Don and I got chatting to a fairly elderly chap who had set up next to us. He told us why he had come on the trip; he had been one of the many disappointed people in Cornwall, and had taken advantage of this unique ultra-cheap trip to finally get to see an eclipse. He asserted that he just wanted to see one, and then he would be satisfied.
We told him that before the day was over, he would have changed his mind; once he had seen one, he would want to see another. He repeatedly insisted, “No – just one; that will do me!”, while we gently ribbed him to the contrary.
About one minute after Third Contact, he asked us, “When’s the next one?”
Now we come to something far less pleasant… A couple of days ago, as I write this, I read what is quite possibly the most appalling, outrageous and staggeringly stupid thing I have ever read in my entire life… Apparently, many American schools, which are within the eclipse track, are planning to… wait for this… keep the children indoors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What in the name of sanity are the cretins thinking?????????????????????????? Seeing a total eclipse from your own home town is not merely a once in a lifetime experience, but once in several lifetimes – an opportunity which 99% of the population never get in their lifetimes! That American schoolchildren are being denied that fantastic opportunity, for the sake of some demented “health and safety” lunacy, absolutely beggars belief! This was decided not by individual schools, but at the level of district, or even state, education boards!
Thankfully, some parents are apparently planning to keep their kids out of school on the day, no matter what. If I was a parent with a kid at one of those schools, I would say to the school, “My kid is not going to be denied this experience – take me to court if you like!” Then I would petition for the resignation of the entire education board.
What appals me almost as much is that the aforementioned work colleague actually agrees with the schools’ policy, and claims that he can’t understand why I consider it stupid and outrageous! As you might imagine, our “debate” became a little heated! His “reasoning” is presumably similar to that of the education boards – that the teachers are responsible for the children, and “can’t allow them to run around in the dark, or risk them staring at the Sun”. ( It doesn’t even get anything like completely dark during totality; the light of the corona is about equivalent to that of a Full Moon. ) Well, if that’s what they are paranoid about, then why not just give the kids the day off, or even offer the parents the choice, and so let the parents be responsible?
My colleague then insisted that “Most people don’t care about an eclipse! The kids won’t even be aware that they have missed anything!” My reply can’t be repeated in polite company… but surely it should be up to each child to decide for themselves whether they are interested, not to have adults decide for them!!!!!!!! He actually considers it reasonable, that they will be denied the right to make up their own minds!
( The fellow in question is the kind of person who really believes that, whatever the subject, his own opinion is the only one which matters. I now realise why he thinks eclipses are no big deal; he thinks he creates one every time he puts his trousers on! )
Now let’s consider his “most people don’t care” assertion. Of course 99.9% of people are not sufficiently interested to travel abroad to see an eclipse, and 99% not even enough to travel a couple of hundred miles within their own country. But for the tiny fraction who get the opportunity in their own home town, it’s a different matter entirely! The idiot disputed even this, claiming that “for most people, it’s a non-event, and they wouldn’t bother to walk to the end of the street to see it!” Not to put too fine a point on it, this is another of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever heard! If that’s his own attitude, then he’s perfectly entitled to it – but he somehow assumed the right to speak on behalf of everyone else – based on no evidence whatsoever! On the other hand, my assertion to the contrary is based on the evidence of my own eyes.
I’ve already said that in Bulgaria in 1999, 10000 local people descended on one small village, because they had learned in the media that a lot of astronomers were camped there. My last eclipse was in Australia in 2012; I observed it on the beachfront at Palm Cove, a small resort village with a population of a mere 1200 – the sort of place where the tourists outnumber the locals.
The eclipse happened very early in the morning; First Contact was at 05h44m local time, only nine minutes after sunrise. Totality began at 06h38m, with the Sun only 14° above the horizon. By about 05h30m, the entire kilometre-long beachfront was lined with thousands of people, both tourists and locals, with hundreds of the latter. So much for “most people don’t care”; most of the population of the town got up at 5.00 am to see the spectacle! Later in the day, some of those people, such as hotel staff and waitresses, told me that it was “fantastic”, “awesome”, etc. ( I myself have always said that my first total eclipse was one of the handful of experiences in my life for which that latter overused adjective was truly appropriate. ) Of course, in this case, the timing helped; as it was so early in the morning, people were able to see it before they went to work.
[ Update, May 2019: A year after the 2017 American eclipse, I heard an amazing fact – and I just wish I was still in contact with that former colleague, to tell him about it. For the hundreds of thousands of Americans who travelled within their own country, just to see the eclipse, without going to tourist attractions, the most popular destination was eastern Wyoming. ( I was in the west of the state. ) After the eclipse was over, as everyone tried to leave the region at once, there occurred the longest traffic jam ever seen in the USA – 300 miles long, with people stuck in it for 14 hours!!! But no-one cares about an eclipse… ]
My own small country had all of two total eclipses in the 20th Century. We all know about 1999; the first one occurred in 1927. In 1991, when I was preparing for my first eclipse trip, my late grandmother, then 90 years old, told me that she remembered it. She didn’t remember what year it was, but remembered seeing a total eclipse when she was young. She wasn’t mistaken, as it was indeed total in Teesside, where she lived – the centreline crossed Hartlepool. She told me that she and most of her neighbourhood walked up into the nearby Eston Hills to see it; again, it occurred soon after sunrise, so if you weren’t on the seafront, you had to get away from the houses and to a place with a low horizon.
Now you would have to look a very long way to find a person less intellectual than my gran! She had only the most basic education, and of anything remotely scientific or intellectual, she was utterly, 100% ignorant. I’m using that word in its true meaning of “lacking in knowledge”; I’m not saying she was stupid - just that she never had the education that the next couple of generations took for granted. Yet she, and hundreds of similarly not very educated people, did rather more than “walk to the end of the street”; they all got up at stupid o’clock in the morning, and walked up to the hills, to see something magnificent! They had read in the papers – in the days before TV, when people actually read newspapers as their primary source of information – that this spectacular event was happening, which they would see only once in their lifetime, and they made the effort. In my gran’s case, it must have made some kind of impression, as she remembered it and told me about it, 64 years later!
At the time of the 1927 eclipse, a cartoon was published in Punch magazine, showing a mother saying to a little boy, “If you don’t behave, I won’t bring you next time!” Of course, most people appreciated the joke, as they knew perfectly well that there wouldn’t be a “next time” for 72 years.
After my colleague had made his arrogant “most people don’t care” assertion, I told him the anecdote about my gran – and he still refused to be convinced! The conversation then went like this:
Me: “How many people do you know, who have seen a total eclipse?”
Him: “As far as I know, only you.”
“Exactly. I’ve met hundreds…”
( Interrupting ) “But they were all astronomers and eclipse fanatics, like you!”
“No, they weren’t! And that’s my point!”
Of the several hundred people I’ve met on my eclipse trips, a substantial fraction were not astronomers or eclipse chasers at all! They were the wives and kids – and indeed husbands and kids – of astronomers, who had gone along for the holiday, having no interest in astronomy or eclipses themselves. Many of them did indeed go to their first eclipse with precisely the attitude of “What’s all the fuss about? Why are we going halfway round the world to see something that lasts two minutes?” In the cases where they successfully saw the eclipse, not a single one of them came back saying the same!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’ve yet to meet a single person, who has actually seen a total eclipse, and then said anything to the effect of “Big deal! What was all the fuss about?” On the contrary, I’ve heard of many of those very same people, literally within a minute of Third Contact, asking their husband or dad, “When’s the next one?”
Finally, on the same theme… After the 2006 eclipse, a short essay appeared in Sky and Telescope, describing the experience of a non-astronomer seeing her first total eclipse. The author was a lady whose husband was a veteran of a couple of eclipses, but she had gone with him for the first time.
Her opening sentence was: “When my astronomer husband suggested that we go to Turkey for the total eclipse, I did not jump for joy.” She then described how she had resigned herself to going on the trip, and consoled herself with the thought that she could “shop to her heart’s content”. Then she described her experience of the event…
The title of this piece said it all: “Oh, now I get it!”
And with that, I rest my case.

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