For those who may come to the Great American Eclipse, next 21 Aug. 2017

We are very pleased to host and publish this wonderful article by Michael Schwartz, astronomer, Director of Tenagra Observatories, in sight of the great American Eclipse next August.

The total solar eclipse of 18 July 1860, drawing by G. Tempel

The total solar eclipse of 18 July 1860, drawing by G. Tempel

How to Observe the 21 Aug. 2017 Total Eclipse

A total solar eclipse is a fantastic way to learn about the moon, sun, the sun’s corona, and many things scientific.  But!  It is a drama played out on many other levels from the visceral to the ethereal.  A total eclipse of the sun is a show with hundreds of stages.

First, I urge you to take some time during totality to stand away from your telescopes and instruments and look at everything around you, including the people.  Take 30 seconds and empty your mind of images, data collection, equipment adjustment for later processing.  In short, clear your mind of all immediate concerns.  Close your eyes for a few seconds while you do this.  Then once your mind and body feel relaxed:  look and feel.

If this is your first eclipse then it is like any other firm impression:  You will never forget it.  First kiss, first car, first teacher you liked.   It’s all pretty much the same thing.  Unforgettable.

I will do my best to described my first encounter without writing a novelette.  First rule of thumb is that you are going to a completely different place.  Different geography, weather, perhaps language and (trust me on this) the people are different from you.  This is the part I really like.  Oh yes, I am a travel photographer.  Given all the above can you image how delicious this can be?

August 11, 1999 was my first eclipse.  I saw it from a ship in the middle of the Black Sea.  I had signed on for this adventure because it started in Greece and ended in Istanbul after visiting many Aegean islands, inhabited and not.  I will skip my personal impression and feelings about seeing my first eclipse.   This is, after all, my wanting to tell you to see much more than the occulted disk of the sun.

Greece.  Birthplace of democracy, the public theatre, philosophy, modern science, mathematics, and many other things we now call “Western”.  Layers upon layers of civilizations present themselves in almost every direction.  These are not only standing stones.  Real people stood by them speaking their language with a completely different idea of the world from yours.  So different that it is impossible to imagine their mind set.  Yet so much in common.  Which adults standing in these forums did not want to see their children grow tall and strong?  Which child didn’t want to run wild and play with other children.  Who didn’t sit down to a meal and perhaps laugh and talk?

The people of modern Greece.  Hospitable, slower moving, conversational, fiercely proud of being Greek.  And they look Greek.  Dark, somewhat stocky, hairy.  Yes, they do love to dance.  Don’t stand back like a tourist.  Dance with them.  They love foreigners who want to learn.  And you will as well.

Greek food was magnificent.  (What did you expect?  A recipe?)

On board a ship in the port of Piraeus.  Carried about 500 people.  Not a floating hotel but not stuck in a rowboat.  Then off to investigate these other people and why they want to see this eclipse.  I made a perhaps understandable mistake.  I thought I would be on a ship full of astronomers or advanced amateurs.

There wasn’t one to be met or seen.

Okay, mistakes are nothing but an indication that it is time to change course.  They are great opportunities for unexpected experiences.  Who were these people and why were they paying all this money to watch an eclipse?  You can’t categorize them.  One couple have an anniversary.  Others want to be on a ship only for a vacation with a crescendo.  A few had travel telescopes and lots of equipment.

Still somewhat disappointed, I made friends with a Nobel Laureate.  Interesting guy and his poor wife.  But that is another story and a pretty good one.  I also said hello to life on a ship which was pleasant in its own way.  I watched flying fish escape the driving bow of the ship.  I was alone at sea for the first time.  All around me was a straight line where sky met water.  I imagined the early mariners, from people in crude boats to the thousands of amphora cargo ships serving Greece for millennia.  I traveled back in time.  Standing on the same 3-dimensional spot somehow makes it easy for me to take a little walk on the time dimension.

There is no experience like watching the sun set into the sea.  It’s hanging in the sky, much taken for granted and sometimes we use it to time in a rough sort of way.  The sun is the mother of all life and its birth gave us this miraculous blue-green sphere.

When the sun lays itself on the ocean you can see it really move.  Colors change as if it were Autumn or dive deeply into dark blue and the deep purple like the depths of the sea where light barely penetrates.  A calm sea makes you forget that you are on a ship.  Warm air caresses you.

After many islands, we headed up to the Straits of Bosporus and into the Sea of Marmara right past the great Istanbul/Constantinople where Europe meets Asia.  Suddenly I was floating past the Blue Mosque, one of the greatest of the great of Islamic art and architecture.  The other Abrahamic religion that forbids images of any kind.  Was I really here?  Watching Istanbul float by was a slight taste of things to come.  After the cruise I had many days there to explore.  A underground market with huge spools of gold chain.  An outdoor market, a kaleidoscope of exotic herbs and spices where two sellers got into a shouting match.  I sure wished I had understood Turkish slang and name calling.

We steamed north to the city of Odessa, Ukraine.  I hadn’t done any homework and had no idea what to expect from the relatively newly freed Ukraine.  It was in shambles.  What was once a beautiful city with Parisian like boulevards was now a wasteland.  Plastic bags blew in the wind.  Prostitutes stood in darkened building niches.  Few cars were seen.  A very awkward guide showed us some small museum.  The country was on its knees.

Block-like and primitive compared to vacation standards elsewhere, were the endless sanitariums.  The Russians believe in “cures”.  Being packed with mud and soaking in minerals.  There were small block buildings for lesser folk and very big ones for the old Soviet elite.  Especially the members of the Polit Bureau.  It made me think about all the ways that people organize in large numbers.  It appears that every system, from pure capitalist to pure communist, eventually becomes top heavy and falls in upon itself.  I also imaged my mother’s parents, Ukrainian Jews, giving all their money to one hardy person, then having that emissary somehow travel to the Atlantic, get on a rusty ship and land on Ellis Island.  My grandparents, not on the same ship, wondered in anticipation at the green Statue of Liberty.  And huge promise. They prospered.  .

Then on to Yalta, the place where a very sick Franklin Roosevelt, a supposed bull dog Winston Churchill and calculating Josef Stalin met to divide up Europe now that the Nazis were almost finished.  Can you imagine?  I did as I stood there, only time separating from these days of talks that determined the fate of millions.  Stalin knew that Roosevelt liked blue so he had his room decorated in various shades that would calm him.

We shoved off.

Eclipse time approached.  The captain watched the weather and headed for mid-line.  Now the people had a feeling of anticipation.  Would it be clear?  That’s when I was struck by the idea that I was now as subject to the weather as any farmer 6,000 years ago.  With all our technology and manufactured civilization we are still victims of the weather.  Crops failed due to draught 6,000 years ago and people starved.  Clouds come in and there is no eclipse.  I wonder if any of the passengers did any kind of secret incantations to ensure good weather.  Prayers to Zeus?

Eclipse day.  Yes, there were that collection of people who stood shoulder to shoulder on the bow, lots of people pointing tripod-mounted cameras towards the clear sky.  But others, without cameras, cable releases and trying to steady scopes on a moving ship, were making themselves ready for the show.  What show?  I had no idea.  These people set up chairs and made themselves comfortable.

A yell from the bow meant first contact.  I looked around among my fellow spectators and they continued whatever they were doing.  Mostly talking and laughing as if nothing had happened.  I had already seen too many partial eclipses and was in no hurry to rush down to look through someone’s telescope at a tiny bite taken out of the sun.

Here’s how I figured it:  Within a few months the new “Sky & Telescope” or “Astronomy” would publish an article containing pictures, highly processed, that would surpass anything I cared to do.  Why take pictures?

The real magic happened when the sun was over 90% covered.  I hadn’t imagined that the sun would become like a point source and shadows would sharpen to the point where every hair on your head casts a distinct shadow.

Not only that, the point-source light was distinctly blue in color.  A tiny piece of yellow sun makes a very stark, almost cold kind of bluish-while light. An unexpected delight.

I entered what I call “The Nexis”.  The Nexis is the reason all eclipse chasers were on this trip.  When you enter the Nexis you leave your everyday frame of mind behind and enter unique consciousness.  All my noisy thoughts went to their perches and rested.  My mind was an open vessel fed only by my eyes.  I looked around at the others.  They watched, lost in themselves, having dropped their eclipse glasses and were staring at the black hole in an unholy (or blessed?) sky.

We entered the Nexis because it feels good.  It is a dream within a dream.  It a place worth chasing all over the world even if you have no idea that it is pure chance that our big moon can barely cover the sun.  It is a invitation to a unique reality.

Now I understood.  An eclipse trip is infinitely more than grabbing a few frames for hanging on your wall or showing at the next astronomy club meeting.  It is an unparalleled opportunity to explore the past and the present as a stranger in a strange land.  Then there is the Nexis.  I am addicted.

Since that first eclipse I have traveled to Egypt, China, Tibet, Gabon, Morocco and quite a few places in between.  Each an immersion experience with the centerpiece being the Nexis.  Each an endless landscape of the present, past and an inner exploration.  Plus I have never been clouded out.  I think the gods and the Four Winds are looking out for me.

Go ahead and set up your tripods and take your pictures.  But never forget that you will enter the Nexis in a unique place with a deep past.  Talk to the local people.  Eat the local food.  Jump into a lake or creek to cool off on a hot August day.  But not during eclipse time on August 21, 2107!

See you in N. America!

Michael Schwartz
Director, Tenagra Observatories
May 25, 2017

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