Two minutes that will change your life

Sky watchers in Port Douglas, Australia on November 13. (photo by Bob Berman)

It was a nerve-wracking event. On this, my seventh total solar eclipse since 1970, the forecast from the get-go was for a 50/50 chance of clear conditions. Sure enough, the skies over tropical northeastern Australia, 16 degrees from the Equator, were generally cloudy each morning. I’d obsessively check the daily forecasts, make bargains with God and worry that the 41 people in my tour group, all but six of whom had never seen a solar totality, would go away disappointed.

In my formal eclipse lecture a few days earlier in Sydney, I’d spiced up the dry math and lunar orbital details with assurances that they would see something utterly beyond ordinary human experience. Yet here we were at 5:30 a.m. on November 14, standing on the palm-fringed beach watching the Sun rise into a sky peppered with huge clouds. The hourlong partial eclipse began minutes after sunrise. While people from all over the world silently gathered to stare at the deepening eclipse like some religious cult, the Sun played peek-a-boo. It hid for ten minutes at a time, then appeared for the next ten minutes as an ever-narrowing crescent. Would it be positioned in one of the holes between clouds during the precious two minutes of totality? There was no way to tell.

Meanwhile, I was webcasting the event live to ABC News and MSNBC, and to 300,000 viewers on the SLOOH website. My crew of three was handling the solar telescope, the proprietary software that streamed the live images and camera that showed me doing the narration. As planned, 15 minutes before totality, I stopped speaking and turned over all commentary to solar researcher Lucie Greene in London.

It was pure selfishness. I never had any intention of blabbing during the sacred seconds of totality, when deep-pink flames would visibly shoot like geysers from the solar limb. It would have been as pointless and arrogant as trying to narrate the bursting of a fireball meteor or the first sunrise on the Grand Canyon. But would we even see this thing?

As the light got more and more eerie, with alien sharp-edged shadows covering the beach, the Sun reduced to a delicate point, everyone was finally able to put down their eye-protective filters and view it directly. Alas, the Sun chose that exact moment to vanish behind a cloud. Darkness swept the scene. The brighter stars came out through all the open spaces between clouds. But the eclipse itself was hidden.

Precious seconds passed: 15, 20. Then – and you could almost hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” – the fully eclipsed Sun suddenly emerged. We gaped at the remaining minute-and-a-half of the two-minute event, capped by the most beautiful “diamond ring” ever. They had seen it!

I looked at the crowd, first spotting a radiologist from Rochester with tears streaking her face. We said nothing, just hugged. A Chinese 20-year-old from Pittsfield was trembling, and only later found words. Everyone agreed that it was unlike any other experience. It conjured a powerful, ineffable feeling that could not be recalled a few hours later. Nor did the photos resemble the actual apparition.

I was so happy for them, and glad that several from our own region had signed on for the tour: David and Evelyn Rosenthal from Kingston, Judy and Phillip Bishop of New Paltz, Kathy Lloyd of Cooperstown – and lots of Californians, and a couple of guys from Alberta, and an obsessively smoking Danish couple. Three female physicians, a molecular biologist, a pair of 20-something Boston newlyweds on their honeymoon, a father-and-son from Indiana, a retired San Francisco principal: a diverse group.

But after seven eclipse pilgrimages and the same number of successes – to places like Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, India and Colombia – I knew that I was pressing my luck. After all, the late Jack Smolen of Hurley was clouded out of four of the seven that he had traveled to see. Indeed, a group of Canadian astronomers staying at our hotel in Port Douglas, north of Cairns, had chartered a bus to dash three hours inland along the track, where the forecast was better that morning. Turned out that they were completely clouded out, and we felt horrible for them. They had wanted it so badly.

I decided never again to go where the weather prospects were so iffy. It’s too nerve-wracking. I’ll pass on the next totality, a one-minute eclipse in East Africa on November 3, 2013, where it’s often cloudy at eclipse time (afternoon). The following year, 2014, there is none anywhere. Then, on March 20, 2015, a two-minute totality sweeps over the normally overcast North Atlantic, from south of Iceland to the Scottish Faeroe islands to the North Pole: another no-go. However, maybe I’ll run a tour for the 2016 totality over Borneo and Sumatra; I’ll have to do homework on the climatological odds.

But all of us should be thinking ahead to August 21, 2017, to the first solar totality over the mainland US in 38 years. The narrow path of the Moon’s shadow will venture as close to us as Nashville, though it will be statistically clearer in eastern Idaho and Jackson, Wyoming, which lie within the 100-mile-wide track.

We’ll do a preview a few years from now. Meanwhile, please resolve to place yourself in the shadow of the Moon at least once in your life. It must be seen to be believed. Phone those Kingston or New Paltz people; they’ll tell you.

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