There are three types of solar eclipses. They are:

  • Total Eclipse: when the moon completely obscures the sun, leaving only the sun's corona visible.
  • Partial Eclipse: when the sun and moon are out-of-line, so the sun is only partially obscured.
  • Annular Eclipse: when the moon is at its apex, it's not quite large enough to completely obscure the sun. In this case the outer edge of the sun remains visible. This is a combination of a total and a partial eclipse.

It was a muggy day in the small town of Vèp, Hungary. The weather reports held dim prospects for us - chance of rain with very few breaks in the clouds. The sense of pessimism toward the weather, however, was overshadowed by the prospect of what most of us were about to witness for the first - and hopefully not last - time in our lives.

As we walked the two or three miles from our campsite to the large field some kind local had allowed us to borrow for a short while, we sang and chanted and prayed for the gods to be nice. Some of us were lugging heavy telescopes and photographic equipment, while others were making trips back and forth with a car to bring a few computers and video equipment. The solar eclipse of August 11, 1999 was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. We had to be prepared.

About two hours of setting up and sitting around and getting giddy had passed when first contact was made. That is, the moon had just started to slowly graze the edge of the sun. Cheers and whoops were released from the steadily growing crowd of astronomy amateurs and scientists alike. We ran around, looking through filtered telescopes and binoculars, and a few people attached their cameras to the eyepieces of their telescopes. As the moon covered more of the sun, the daylight grew dim and eerie. Sun sickles, small crescents of light formed by the shadows of the trees, were beginning to sprinkle the ground. Weather reports were like hot gossip that traveled fast through our group. It looked like the rest of the European countries that were in the line of sight for the eclipse had been clouded over with rain. We were the only ones with the chance of a clear view of the whole thing!

Totality drew close and fast like an impending storm. The sky grew broodingly dark and sallow on one horizon, and on the other things seemed bright and sunny. There were clouds in the sky, but none that were blocking the sun. People lingered about their telescopes, peering through them and checking their watches. Totality would last two minutes and twenty two seconds.

Chants of "sun! sun! sun! sun!" grew louder from the amalgamation of Italians, Hungarians, Polaks, French, British, Spanish, Americans, Slovenians, and others. At last, totality! Someone shouted that it was now safe to look at the sun directly, without protection. I took of my flimsy solar shades and beheld a beautiful spectacle. The sky was a luminous shade of deep blue. Venus was now visible as a bright diamond, and to the left of it shone a blazing ring of light. A perfect black hole in the sky was surrounded by a circle of fire and flares. I looked around at the others. The crowd of a hundred-odd people was dumbstruck, elated, and awed. The wild ecstasy and din was replaced with a silent respect and calm reverence.

I quickly ran to my friend Stijn's pair of large binoculars and looked through. The corona was now detailed with sharper outlines and solar flares. Stijn and I looked at each other with approving grins. It was beautiful to see the sun through binoculars, but something else entirely to observe it with the naked eye. I felt privileged to be right there, in Hungary, amongst a group of people who loved the sun and stars as much as I. I felt lucky to have landed on a planet where the ratio of the sun and moon matched up just perfectly enough to allow gorgeous things like eclipses to happen.

That was the fastest 2 minutes and 22 seconds of my life. As the moon moved along its orbit, a small spark of light on one edge of the sun began to grow brilliant. This is known as the diamond ring, and it signifies the end of totality. Everyone cheered, champagne bottles popped open and the alcohol was sprayed and splashed on everyone, people climbed on one another's shoulders and sang. I have never witnessed something that produced such a feeling of togetherness and inspiration.

Two minutes after totality had completed, a large cloud came and and slowly covered our sun. We checked news reports. We were the only ones in Europe who had gotten to see the whole eclipse with no obstructions or foul weather.

Who wants to join me for the one in Africa, December 4, 2002?

The Ancients, not understanding astronomy very well, assigned spiritual and all manner of metaphysical meaning to solar eclipses. The Moderns, with at least some understanding of what things go around other things, choose to observe it in awe and celebrate what a cool thing it is when the world goes a bit kooky.

The August 1999 eclipse, or Éclipse totale de Soleil du 11 août 1999 as it was known to the French, could be magnificently observed from La Bande de Totalité sweeping through the North of France and providing a great excuse for a holiday. There were other places that were good (parts of the UK, Eastern Europe, Turkey). I spent the week surrounding this eclipse houseboating to and from eclipse-central with a group of like-minded scientists. The onset of the eclipse was very strange indeed. As the zone of darkness approaches the weather changes quite dramatically. The atmosphere in the direction of the approach is cooled significantly and this causes strange winds and clouds. The birds go nutty. The humans just party in awe. The craziness passes overhead and it gets very dark indeed. The Sun's corona, normally indiscernible from the intense brightness, dances around the moon as it moves in to obscure. It is very pretty. Then as the zone moves away it all happens in reverse and life returns to normal.

It is very spooky.

The blotting out of the sun during a solar eclipse has long been surrounded with fright and superstition by people around the world. Early civilizations came up with interpretations of the phenomenon to try and explain what they could not understand. Early cultures saw the sun as the giver of life in its consistency, so something that could shadow the sun was seen as an ominous and catastrophic event, associated with many beliefs, myths, and superstitions.

For much of human history, the reasons behind solar eclipses were a mystery. Different cultures around the world have believed in anything from demons stealing the sun's light to dragons swallowing the sun in anger, and associate solar eclipses with calamities, war and epidemics. For centuries, priests of ancient civilizations kept the knowledge of eclipses to themselves. Because they could predict the incidence of eclipses they could terrify people into believing that they could blot out the sun at will. Most people were made to fear eclipses and to make sacrifices to safeguard against their effects.


Ancient Eclipse Myths

Indian
In India, the solar eclipse symbolizes the demon Rahu eating up the sun. Indian mythology tells of Rahu deceiving the gods, and being beheaded as punishment for his transgression. Rahu's head was thought to come back every few years to devour the sun god. Believers looked at the solar eclipse as dangerous, and said that the danger from the eclipse passed only when the sun emerged from Rahu's head.

Chinese
The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses were caused by a dragon trying to swallow the Sun. They believed that the dragon needed to be frightened away by beating drums, banging gongs, and shooting fireworks into the sky. To this day, the Chinese word for a solar eclipse is "resh" or "Sun-eat".

African
The African solar eclipse myth tells of a snake emerging from the ocean that grew so large it moved to the sky and swallowed the sun. The snake was scared by the beating of drums.

British
17th Century Britain was not free from eclipse superstition. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Gloucester says:

"These late eclipses in the Sun and the Moon pretend no good to us."
In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote:
"The Sun in dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change perplexes monarchs"

Amazon
Not all peoples were afraid of solar eclipses. There is an Amazonian myth that describes the Sun and the Moon as lovers. They loved each other so much that the Sun's light scorched the Earth and the Moon's tears drowned it. It was decided that the Sun and the Moon should live apart in the sky and only be allowed to touch each other's shadow, during a solar eclipse.

Tahitian
In Tahiti, like in the Amazon, solar eclipses had a romantic undertone. They were interpreted as the lovemaking of the Sun and the Moon. People in Tahiti found solar eclipses to be the herald of a divine blessing.


Eclipse Superstitions Today

Despite scientific explanations and an understanding of the solar eclipse as a natural phenomenon, many people continue to beat drums, fire guns into the sky, or hide indoors during the event. Solar eclipses have been associated with wars, floods, famines, political turmoil, and calamity. To many, a solar eclipse indicates a disease on the sun, and to avoid catching the disease, one must protect himself. In ancient times, eclipses were events of ill portent. Even today, many people who do not understand their nature still fear them.

Indian
Many in India believe that during an eclipse, the number of germs increases. Therefore, no food is eaten or cooked during the event, and any food cooked before the eclipse is discarded. In an act of cleansing, people immerse themselves in water up to their neck. Pregnant women refrain from cutting and sewing during the eclipse, believing the unborn child would be contaminated by the eclipse and become deformed. In India some people lock themselves in their homes to avoid the "bad rays" from the eclipse.

Thai
Lucky objects are used to ward off evil omens during a solar eclipse in Thailand. Since black is the color of Rahu (the demon of darkness), black chicken, black liquor, black beans, black eggs, black rice and black moss sticks are thought to be lucky.

Japanese
In Japan, some people cover wells to avoid them being poisoned by the celestial "disease."

Eskimo
Some Eskimos turn over utensils during a solar eclipse to avoid them being tainted.

Sources: BBC Online Network (http://news.bbc.co.uk), Florida Today (http://www.flatoday.com/space/explore/stories/1999b/081199n.htm), Space.com (http://www.space.com/), and Total Solar Eclipses (http://www.colorsofindia.com/eclipse/index.html)

What are the odds! In a total solar eclise, the moon fits over the sun. Not just fits over the sun, fits perfectly over the sun.

As in, uncannily perfectly. It's too perfect. As in, it's a small, a very small moon, and very large sun, and it just so happens that the moon is just the right distance from the earth and the sun to fit perfectly.

Here is an extract from the wikipedia entry on solar eclipse:

Solar eclipses are an extreme rarity within the universe at large. They are seen on Earth because of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. Even on Earth, eclipses of the type familiar to people today are a temporary (on a geological time scale) phenomenon. Many millions of years in the past, the Moon was too close to the Earth to precisely occlude the Sun as it does during eclipses today; and many millions of years in the future, it will be too far away to do so.

I love the understatement of it... fortuitously. I mean yes, it is pure chance, but the sheer odds against it dwarf my struggling mind. Still, I guess we have life on earth so stranger things have happened.

If you go to the NASA website you can see that the next total solar eclipse is in November 2012.

A full solar eclipse is only viewable from a pretty small path on Earth, see the map on that linked website. Who is up for Cairns in 2012?

I have never before appreciated quite what a mind fuck this is, the way that it fits over at exactly the right size.

They've run this Universe experiment 50,000,000,000,000 times and this is the only one in which this happened...

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