A theoretical physicist shares his “lifelong fascination with eclipses.”
Many readers will share Close’s (Physics/Oxford Univ.; Half-Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy, 2015 etc.) conviction that the solar eclipse is “the most beautiful natural phenomenon” one can see. The author witnessed his first eclipse in 1954 at the age of 8. Still captivated by their allure—he has become a dedicated eclipse-watcher, traveling to remote spots around the world in pursuit of the experience—the author artfully weaves together his own experiences and an explanation of the phenomenon. He begins with a “cosmic coincidence.” Although our sun is “400 times broader than the moon,” because it is "400 times further away,” they can appear to be the same size. This allows the moon to block out the sun from our view during a total eclipse, a phenomenon that occurs every 18 months somewhere on Earth. The next event will take place on Aug. 21, 2017, when “up to 200 million people will gather in a narrow belt across the USA, from Oregon to South Carolina, to witness the most watched total solar eclipse in history.” Remarkably, although Greek astronomers did not understand the phenomenon, they were able to predict the occurrence of solar eclipses with an accuracy of about a month, and Shakespeare noted their occurrence in King Lear. Eclipse-watching has its disappointments, writes Close—e.g., in 1999, when the time and viewing opportunity had been precisely calculated but his view was completely obscured “by layers of impenetrable dark clouds.” More recently, a 5,000-mile trip to Zambia proved to be successful, and he describes the thrill of observing “a disc of pure blackness beg[in] to slide across the face of the Sun.” The author intends to share the upcoming August eclipse with his grandchildren, and he provides detailed instructions on how readers can see it for themselves.
Illuminating preparatory reading for the August eclipse.