Why the eclipse mattered.


I have been hearing about Sunday’s annular eclipse for weeks. Earlier this month, I visited my parents in Albuquerque, and the eclipse was all my dad could talk about. Dad, known to the rest of the world as Dee Friesen, is President of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society (TAAS) and when I arrived at his house the other day, he was wearing a t-shirt with the words “Astronomy (not astrology)” written across the chest in big letters.

During the course of my four day visit, Dad managed to get me pretty excited about the eclipse. Albuquerque was inside the zone where the eclipse was visible in its entirety, and it was also about 90% visible in western Colorado, where I watched it from my front yard.

After it was all over, I called Dad with some questions.

CHRISTIE: What made this eclipse special?

DAD: Several things. In Albuquerque the centerline of the moon’s shadow crossed right through the airport. It was one of the best locations to view the event. The second reason is because it was an annular eclipse.  This produces the “ring of fire” image in place of the total blocking of the sun’s disk.

Eclipse as seen through the eyes of some Colorado shadow creatures.

CHRISTIE: It was really tempting to try peeking directly at the sun with my sunglasses on, but I decided to obey my father and use a pinhole viewer. Dave made one from an empty case of wine.

DAD: Were you able to see after you drank a case of wine?  Thanks for being a good daughter and protecting your eyes.

CHRISTIE: It doesn’t sound very exciting to turn your back to this big show and watch it on the bottom of a cardboard box, but I have to say, it was really cool! Even though it’s just a tiny dot through the pinhole, it was spectacular. It looked just like what I would expect to see through a telescope, only a little smaller.

DAD: Yes, actually experiencing the celestial event is truly exciting–you realize that at the moment you view the eclipse, the moon and the sun (our star) are perfectly aligned in a straight line. How you obtain that view is a secondary issue. Even if you try to take photographs, there will always be much better pictures available on the internet.

CHRISTIE: I loved that it just went on and on. We had three of us watching and we didn’t have to fight over the viewer. I drank almost an entire beer before it was over. It was the perfect Sunday afternoon event. Leisurely, yet engaging.

DAD: No beer for us since it was a public family event sponsored by Bernalillo County.  However, there was a very relaxed festive atmosphere.  The Albuquerque Astronomical Society had a number of telescopes with solar filters for viewing of the multiple sun spots as well as flares and prominences on the surface of the sun.  We also had a special education display explaining the simple physics of an eclipse.  People really took the time to listen and hopefully gained an understanding of the science of the eclipse.

CHRISTIE: As it got closer and closer to its maximum, I felt myself getting all giddy with anticipation. When it was at its peak, we fell into a sort of awe.

DAD: I have been to a lot of public sky viewing events, but nothing compares to this. At a typical event, timing is not a factor.  However, during the eclipse, everyone views the same objects at the same time. As the event proceeded, anticipation built in the crowd and a large chorus of cheers erupted at the first moment of annularity.

CHRISTIE: The eclipse happened near sunset, but the quality of the light during the eclipse seemed different from a normal sunset. The light appeared kind of gray and the shadows were really sharp.

DAD: That is what happens as the intensity of the sun gets dimmer. It is like an old time film projector that has a dim projection bulb. The shadows appear sharper because the light source, in this case the sun, gets smaller and is more of a point source.

CHRISTIE: How many people showed up at the TAAS events to watch?

DAD:  We are still trying to find out. TAAS was represented at four different locations. The total count will exceed 10,000.  In addition, we had several members who went to a parks unannounced and had an unexpected 100 people join them for viewing.

CHRISTIE: The eclipse wasn’t scientifically significant, so why did it matter?

DAD: People were actually thinking about their location in the universe. They looked outside their televisions and smart phones and air-conditioned houses, and observed the natural world. For a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, people forgot about everything else except their moon and their sun.  Most importantly, they enjoyed it.




Photos: Eclipse watchers and ring of fire courtesy Dee Friesen. I took the small eclipse photo with my iphone, pointed into the pinhole viewer.

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Categorized in: Christie, Earth, Nature, The Cosmos

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