It’s funny how a lot of great things happen serendipitously in my life. A series of impossible coincidences lead to some of the happiest moments that take my breath away. Yesterday’s annular solar eclipse was one such event. Until two days ago, I did not even know there were two kinds of solar eclipses – total and annular. I already knew the moon’s orbit was elliptical, but I never imagined the logical next step.
tl;dr version: First I explain my awe for solar eclipses in general. Next I list the series of incidents that led to the most amazing thing I have ever seen.
Note: All dates are relative to the day I first published this post on my own personal blog - three days ago.
And what a fluke of nature that I was in an area where the eclipse was actually visible. The last solar eclipse I had witnessed was about 30 years ago. I was in the penumbra of a total eclipse. Then I was in Chennai, India. My dad had made a few tiny holes in a cloth and hung it on the window. I will never forget how the perfect bright circles in the shadow of the cloth represented the sun perfectly. Slowly the circle started cresenting – just like the moon usually did. It was awesome as every little disc of light became concave. The moon was eating the sun then – that is how a total solar eclipse works. This time in 2012, the sun was eating the moon. The sun ingests the moon and spits it out in an annular eclipse.
Although, I have witnessed an eclipse only twice – including yesterday’s, I know for a fact that it is not a very uncommon event. I’m sure it happens all the time. What makes it unique to so many of us is that when it happens, it does not happen everywhere on the same day. Most of the time it is visible only over the ocean. And you would not even notice it unless you knew to look for it – knowing before hand that it would occur. Yet, it is very common knowledge how an eclipse works, and although it is certainly a rare and spectacular celestial event, everyone knows about it from reading about them in stories.
As soon as we hear about a pending solar eclipse, we hear warnings about how to not look at the sun directly during an eclipse because that is dangerous. Of course, the sun is just as dangerous to look at any day of the year under the wrong conditions. We all look at it very casually and with no second thought of danger during sunrise and sunset. It is most beautiful and perfectly round when we see it behind translucent clouds. So unless you are looking at an eclipse during sunrise, sunset, or behind a translucent cloud, it is dangerous. But if you can get to view it under one of these three conditions, you are very fortunate indeed.
In my case both times the sun was pretty high up in the sky. Yesterday, although it was around 5:40 PM when the eclipse started, the sun was at around 45 degrees up in the sky – thanks to daylight saving and long days in northern California. I was expecting it to last just a few minutes – less than 5. But the full event lasted almost an hour at least. If you have watched timed a sunset in the ocean, you would have noticed that from the time the sun touches the ocean, till the time it disappears behind it is just about one minute. So it was a pleasant surprise to have it last a whole hour. Serendipity.
So what made this eclipse magical for me? I was able to actually look directly at the sun with and without filters. I was able to clearly see the moon blocking the sun. I saw my shadow split crazily into two distinct profiles – one half with razor sharp edges and the other half with blurry edges. I saw a million crescents when I longed for it – with no effort at all. And best of all, I was able to show these cool effects to complete strangers in exchange for a welding visor.
I had gone to Sacramento for a friend’s son’s birthday party. At the party, Manju heard that there was going to be an eclipse from 5 PM to 8 PM on Sunday. Apparently, I have now discovered, that was the duration of the eclipse’s path across the western US, after which the sun would set. That is why people in the interior western states would have the best look at the eclipse.
All morning, I was looking at various ways to see the sun’s manifestations in little bright circles. I saw them in the shadow cast by the Venetian blinds, I saw them via pinholes on paper plates, and best of all, in the shadow of my hands with my fingers crisscrossed. I knew for sure that these bright circles would be concave crescents, and may be a ring that evening – only because I clearly remember the experiment my dad had made – where I saw the crescent of the sun in the shadow of the curtain from my childhood.
That morning, when Joshua asked Siri “when is the next solar eclipse”, Siri said “in 0.xyz days.” When I left Sacramento around 5 PM yesterday, I was headed west. The sun was pretty much in front of me the whole time. The sun was very bright in the cloudless blue sky. The moon was nowhere to be seen. But I was pretty sure it was very close to the sun. When Joshua asked Siri around then, she said about 34 minutes. And sure enough, at 5:38, Joshua said, “Dada I see the Moon covering a part of the Sun!” Immediately I glanced at the sun with my sunglasses and I saw the coolest celestial even humans are destined to see and understand while it happens – the Sun had a small bit taken out of it – almost exactly like the cut out on Apple’s logo.
Fearing that this will only last a few minutes, I took the next exit and pulled over into a parking lot. We got out of the car and started recording the eclipse on my camera. I held out my hands and criss-crossed my fingers. I could see the pattern I expected. But my shadow as long and the pattern was not very clear at a distance. When I sat down to bring my pattern closer, the brightness of the area around my hands shadow was overwhelming. It was not as great as seeing it indoors. It was a bit disappointing.
The sun was too bright to look at. After 5 minutes there wasn’t much changing. So we assumed it was over and got back on the road. But as we drove along we kept glancing back at the sun. Little by little we saw the moon slowly, steadily, and relentlessly touch and mask the face of Ra. As the eclipse progressed and as we continued to drive, I was reminded of the last time I heard about an eclipse. NASA scientists had hopped on a plane and followed a total eclipse, staying in its umbra for a total of nine hours. I was following the eclipse!
I was not prepared for the cool serendipity that followed. While there are many Starbucks’s along the way, we decided we would stop at the Starbucks in Vacaville on Davis St an fill up on gas as well. I think we got there a little after 6. I had imagined that the brightness of the Sun would be diminished by the time the moon covered most of the Sun. In reality, there was hardly any let down in the brightness. A simple cloud causes way more darkness than the whole moon did yesterday. So I was not really clued in to the fact that the moon had by now covered more than 80% of the sun which seemed just as bright. If I had not know about the eclipse in advance, I would not have looked at the sun to check. Although, I kept glancing occasionally, I thought it was only half-masked or less.
When I got out of my car, I looked at the shadow of a tree. I saw the coolest sight. The disappointment I felt at not being able to see the sun’s pattern clearly in my hand’s shadow a half hour ago was replaced by pleasure. In the large shadow of the large tree, there were the patterns of a thousand suns through thousands of tiny holes formed by the leaves of the tree. Every one of those suns were crescents. The moon was now very clearly covering about 90% of the sun. I could not tell that by looking straight at the Sun, but it was very evident in the tree’s shadow!
The best part is yet to come. As I stood there amazed at the thousand suns, I noticed two things. One – my shadow looked very different. The entire right side of my silhouette was very sharply defined, but the left side was blurry with at least two outlines overlapping. And two – a beautiful girl got out of her car in front of me holding something like a Darth Vader mask and looked at the sun. Now what are the chances that
- out of a million possible places I could be,
- I took the Starbucks pit stop at Vacaville,
- at exactly the time when the moon was covering 90% of the sun from my vantage point at that time
- when I did not even know about the eclipse two days earlier
- while I am pondering my split shadow along side a million crescent suns
that a random stranger steps out of her car in front of me
- holding a welding visor
- that she borrowed from her brother
- just to come here to watch the sun in front of Starbucks!
- and she is beautiful?
That has to be very rare. Especially the beautiful part. I wasted no time. I stepped up to Lady Vader and asked if I could look through her welding visor. She agreed instantly. And I saw the most amazing, magical, celestial event I will ever see live! In the almost complete darkness offered by the welding visor, I could see the “Ring of Fire” I have been reading all day. The moon was very clearly and completely black. Black! Until now I could not see the moon – only that the sun was chopped off. Now I could see the beautiful horseshoe shape almost like the one I have pasted above in this post. Lady Vader let all of my family members view the eclipse. And in return I showed her my thousand crescents in the tree’s shadow. I could see, she was visibly surprised and then pleased.
So that is how I ended up watching the sun through a wonderful filter looking directly toward the sun. I will never forget it.