Although my house is blanketed in shadows in the late afternoon, our across-the-street neighbors Larry and Mary had a perfect view. Larry and Mary are about the best neighbors ever. I wouldn't ask them to help me bury a body, since they're both former FBI, but anything short of that I'm confident they'd have our backs. They didn't bat an eye when Karen called yesterday to inform them we were having an Eclipse Party in their front yard and they were welcome to come. They pulled out their lawn furniture, we grilled some chicken-apple sausages, everybody brought wine.
|California Eclipse Party essentials: grilled sausage, potato salad, cherries, grapes, cheese, crackers, olives and other pickled things, red and white wine. Sun optional.|
I chose wisely.
I also took a few minutes to whip up a couple of "solar telescopes." The first was simplicity itself: a flat mirror covered in foil with a dime-size hole cut in it, which I propped up to reflect an image of the crescent Sun onto a poster board leaning against a tree 15 or 20 feet away:
|The foil-covered mirror. Note the box it's leaning on, I'll get to that in a minute. Sunlight reflecting off the small center hole cut into the foil reflected across the yard onto...|
|...white poster board, which made it very easy to sit nearby and watch the eclipse happen LIVE without actually staring stupidly into the Sun.|
|The back end of my pinhole telescope, showing four tiny crescent Suns (because I poked four holes in the other end of the box) back-projected onto a sheet of regular paper.|
But in truth we hardly needed my telescopes at all because the best optics of the eclipse were provided by the two tall trees in my neighbors' yard, whose leaves formed thousands of tiny pinhole lenses that projected perfect little crescent Suns onto their home's siding:
|We just sat there and watched the wall.|
Then when the Sun went down and it got windy and cold, I picked up my telescopes and went home. Perfect.
I might've felt more urgency to witness the full annular eclipse if I hadn't already had the ultimate total eclipse experience on February 26, 1979. That one covered the Sun completely and swept across the Pacific Northwest; I was in my freshman year of college and determined to see it. At the same time, I had a friend who was a big train buff. Ed knew all about their history, routes, lines, station architecture, everything. He theorized that we could board Amtrak's northbound Coast Starlight holding a cheap ticket to the very next station and then ... just not get off. Move around, avoid conductors, act casual. He was sure it would work, and the very worst that would happen if we were discovered is we'd get kicked off.
And I'll be darned: it worked.
(Important note: I do not advocate illegal activity. Do not try this. But if you do, let me know if it still works.)
After a long night huddled in the observation car, we (our merry band of adventurers had grown to five) detrained in Portland, Oregon, which on February 26, 1979 turned out to be the only spot in the Northwest completely covered in clouds. We nevertheless rose early the next day to find a bluff overlooking the Willamatte River to watch the Sun disappear.
Even though we couldn't see the Sun through the clouds, even though we understood precisely what was happening, it was one of the most remarkable, chilling experiences of my life. As the still of sudden nighttime swept across Portland like God drawing a curtain--as the birds stopped chirping and the streetlights blinked on below us--I knew deep in my gut why my ancestors were so terrified they prayed to the giant sky dragon to disgorge the Sun and set things right. Every biochemical cycle in my body that evolved through millions of years of days and nights, moonrises and moonsets, seasons and years, down to the cellular level, screamed out "This is wrong!" It was frightening, exhilarating, and disturbingly weird.
The coda to the story is that we successfully used our train-hopping trick to return home. The funny part is that we saw all the same people in the observation car going south as we had going north. The train both ways was full of freeloaders who'd had the same idea.
* * *
One other related tale that taught me something about people: when I was in college majoring in Physics, I worked as an astronomy laboratory teaching assistant. It's unusual for undergrads to TA, but at the time Astronomy was such a tiny backwater at my university that none of the Physics grad students wanted to do it (that has since changed, and I'm proud to say my alma mater now has a world-class Cosmology program. But it didn't when I was there.)
So I was TAing Introductory Astronomy when a student came to see me during office hours. Several weeks into the class, she needed some help understanding eclipses. No problem, that's why I'm there! We worked on it a long time, with me drawing every diagram of the Earth, Sun and Moon I could think of, and it just wasn't clicking for her. Nothing I did could erase the sad, puzzled look from her face. I began to think I was the worst TA ever. And then, after maybe 20 minutes, she lit up.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Do you mean that the Sun is farther away than the Moon?"
That was the problem. She couldn't understand why the Sun and Moon never ran into each other.
That's when I had my own epiphany: there are enormous numbers of people who aren't necessarily stupid--after all, this girl was smart enough to get into a good university--but simply have no idea, even in the broadest conceivable terms, how the universe around them works. They probably get through life just fine. But to look up into the sky and never ask "What is that? How does it do that?" I can't imagine living a life like that. (To that student's credit, she did take an astronomy class, which is more than most of her peers did.)
Sometimes I like to think my work as both a science writer and graphic novelist is a tiny antidote.
* * *
Speaking of higher education, last weekend my daughter Robin earned her Masters Degree in Archaeology, and Karen and I couldn't be prouder. She wrote an impressive thesis and has already done some good work in the field and lab, and we're confident she has the skills and contacts to make a go of it. She worked very hard and we're very happy for her. Congratulations, Sweetie!