Total Solar Eclipse
Armed with unfamiliar equipment, some mixed good wishes (“What! You’re going to Turkey?”), predictions of all-enveloping clouds, and increasing excitement, Bill and I joined a tour sponsored by the Istanbul Kandilli Observatory for the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. We went hoping we’d learn some things, and knowing that the weather wasn’t the only gamble we were making.
We chose the Kandilli-sponsored tour because of our pleasant experience during the Transit of Venus in 2002 when we’d been welcomed by Dr. Tamer Ataç, the Observatory director. We also were attracted by the location, Antalya on the Mediterranean coast, directly in the path of totality. Antalya offered, in addition, chances to see two choice archaeological sites, Aspendos and Perge, and to swim in the sea.
When we first checked the weather predictions we learned that the prospects for sunny skies were 80%; by mid-March the likelihood had dropped to half. We arrived in Istanbul March 14 to be welcomed by a friend in the middle of a torrential downpour. A watery sun came out briefly once in the next two weeks. That was long enough for us to try out our borrowed camera and find that we didn’t know how to photograph the sun.
Bill and Anna Edmonds and the BPAA Flag in the Mediterranean. (Photo courtesy Bill and Anna Edmonds.)
How long was this eclipse visible? Its path began March 29 on the Atlantic coast of Brazil at sunup (08:35 UT); raced across the ocean at about 9 km/s and made landfall in Ghana (09:10 UT); reached maximum totality on the border between Chad and Libya (10:10 UT) where it had slowed down to moving a mere 0.697 km/s; left Africa over Bardiyah (10:38 UT); entered Turkey barely east of Antalya (10:54 UT); crossed Anatolia (its path intersected the 1999 eclipse at Sivas) to reach the Black Sea port of Ordu (11:08 UT); entered Georgia (11:16 UT); passed near Astrakhan in Kazakhstan (11:24 UT); darkened Kyzyl, and ended at sunset (11:47 UT) just west of Lake Baikal in Russia. In each place, from first contact to fourth (the time that the moon first touched the edge of the sun until it left), the complete eclipse lasted about 2 1/2 hours; the longest time of totality was 4 minutes 7 seconds in Libya. But the time it took for the sweep of the moon’s shadow—sunrise to sunset—across the 14,500 km from Brazil to Russia was only 3 hours 12 minutes. Its west-to-east movement (contrary to the sun’s “rising” in the east) was caused, not by the earth’s spinning around itself, but by the moon’s revolving around the earth.
We’d been warned about the breathless speed of totality: “You’ll have only 3 minutes, 34 seconds to experience the event, to notice what’s happening around you, and to take a few pictures. But most of all, don’t forget to look!” They were truly fleeting moments, and we’re glad we did look. In fact, it was hard to stop looking, the sight was so spell-binding. However, our experiences of total darkness in the middle of the day began unexpectedly when we arrived at our hotel about 55 km east of Antalya on Monday March 27. After some motionless minutes in the elevator, a bit of rattling from the machinery, and a lot of protesting from us, we emerged to find our rooms on the second floor. That confinement added nothing to our astronomical knowledge, but greatly to three friendships with our fellow prisoners. In the darkness we learned that one was the wife of a man with whom we’d enjoyed working some years ago. The enforced closeness turned us into a congenial fivesome.
Our group totaled about 200 people: Finns, Czechs, Canadians, Germans, Russians, Indians, and a scattering of Americans and Turks. The preferred languages of the hotel were German and Russian, and the currency neither Turkish liras nor US dollars but Euros. Tuesday a representative from the Kandilli Observatory hosted an afternoon’s presentation by three professors on different aspects of an eclipse. The first gave a general description of the motions of the earth and the moon relative to the sun. He used a sheet of paper for the inclined plane of the ecliptic to show why an eclipse doesn’t happen every month. The second, a man who hadn’t expected to be called on, talked about the effects of sudden darkness on the geomagnetic field of the earth that he would be studying the next day. The third made some lengthy (and inaudible) comments on the haze that usually develops during an eclipse. We’d thought that the Observatory might offer more practical suggestions for observation, but no doubt they assumed we wouldn’t have come all that distance without doing our homework.
Later that evening we picked up a brochure and spent a few minutes before supper puzzling over its drawings and its unfamiliar language. We were soon approached by its publisher, a dark-haired young man who introduced himself as a reporter from the Czech radio/TV station Cesky Rozhlas. He was delighted to find that these strangers from the Wild West of Seattle were willing to be interviewed for his home viewers. (Goodness knows what he’ll do with our bland remarks, and what his viewers will make of them.)
And then the 29th. After the two weeks of cold rain, Wednesday dawned a typical clear spring day on the Mediterranean. Not a cloud in the sky. With our three friends we took a taxi to Side (See Deh) to see its 2nd century AD theater, its harbor that needed dredging so often it was abandoned, and—most felicitous for the event—its Temple of Apollo, the god of pure light. Besides the several thousand tourists thronging the temple grounds, photographers and reporters from a dozen television networks had arranged their equipment at such an angle that the tall columns of the temple would form a spectacular, dramatic background for the eclipse. Loud speakers blasted Mozart arias while the viewers looked for the most comfortable and advantageous place to expose their film or themselves. The holiday spirit would have been just like home to any Roman dropping in.
With a bit of hunting we located the post office, and, for a consideration, were able to purchase a sheet of stamps that Turkey had issued honoring the occasion. We’d tried to get the stamps before, but they weren’t available until that morning. Nor were they easily available afterwards, an evidence of the way that email, without even a by-your-leave, has usurped the task of mailmen who slogged so faithfully through sleet and snow and blinding heat for centuries. By lunch time we were glad to be back in our quieter hotel where we could set up our modest equipment and visit with our friends. We had several choices for location, none of them offering quite the same ambience that Apollo did, but all allowing more space for thought and movement. For us, the hotel balcony with its view of sea and sky across the palms seemed best.
Sky at Totality, Mediterranean. (Photo courtesy Anna and Bill Edmonds)
About ten minutes before totality someone shot a gun into the sky, an ancient traditional warning of an eclipse either of the sun or of the moon. (It’s also a customary salute during a local wedding.) Our Turkish friend remarked that, while years ago people thought that the shots would scare away the evil spirits of the eclipse, today they use the event to show off their weapons.
Even though we expected it, the sight of the sun slowly but steadily being obscured made us gasp. Totality was predicted for 13:59:54 local time. As it approached, the intensity of sunlight dropped perceptibly, grayness and a cool breeze brushed across the ground, and some haze gathered in a halo about the sun. A paraglider drifted back and forth over the sea in front of us. As totality came closer we saw the diamond ring much brighter than pictures can show. Spontaneously, at totality everyone around us applauded and cheered. Soon Venus appeared, bright in the west. Pegasus must have been there, too, but the haze blocked out all the stars.
Before we were tired of the spectacle of the corona, the diamond ring flashed out again. Briefly the haze formed a vapor trail seeming to hang down from the sun. All too soon we were folding up our tripod and putting our cameras away.
What we learned was a bit more than we expected, and more surprising. The eclipse does appear to come out of nothing. Neither moon nor any other obstruction is visible to the naked eye either before or after. It’s no wonder that early people were scared that they were loosing their sun forever, and, it’s no wonder that those who understood the secrets of the heavens should become so powerful in their communities. Perhaps astronomy/astrology was the first science to be studied seriously and methodically.
The greatest surprises for us were the beauty of the rainbow-range of colors on the horizon, the clarity of Venus, and the compelling focal point of the sun. We’d prepared ourselves to alternate our attention between photographing totality and looking at the sun with our naked eyes. We found that we were drawn to staring at the sun, amazed in spite of ourselves that night should come in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day and that we could look without pain directly at the sun. We’d been told to expect that the birds would know before we did that “night” was near, but that too was a surprise. We were surprised (and disappointed) that our inexpensive digital camera worked better than our 35 mm in producing pictures.
The usually noisy dining room was subdued that night, as though we all were involved in sorting out our experiences of anticipation, actuality, and acceptance. Then—was it a confirmation of the surprising and mysterious favor of the local gods?—Thursday morning the rain returned. No sun peeked through until almost evening and we were back in Istanbul.
Friday morning when we were out for a walk we saw a flock of 200 storks crossing the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe. Once over the coast they took advantage of the rising thermals to circle higher and higher before they shot out of sight in their spring migration to northern lands. As we watched we wondered if their flight might have transected the path of the eclipse, and thus their schedule had been interrupted by the unusual night in midday.
The pictures are those we took near Antalya and those our son Colin took in Istanbul. (They have not been enhanced.) The sky during totality and the crescent sun patterns through the leaves (see photo on page 1) will help keep the memories alive for us. Our gamble on good weather was successful.
We’d gone to enjoy, to learn, and to share. We found that expecting a mystery doesn’t diminish the event. Our gamble on using unfamiliar equipment we took as a lesson in preparedness. We’d had doubts about our health, and I did catch cold (related to having been tempted by the Mediterranean?).
But thanks to the opportunities to be with family and friends in Turkey we felt all our gambles paid off richly. What we got was much more rewarding than we’d ever dreamed it would be.