A total eclipse of the Sun has to be seen — and heard, and felt — to be believed.

Sensory Overload

Much of the time, astronomical observing involves straining to perceive something at the limit of detectability, such as a faint galaxy, a dim double-star companion, or a tiny festoon in Jupiter’s clouds. The more you look the more you see, so the key to really enjoying backyard astronomy is to spend lots of time doing it. It also helps if you take the trouble to learn as much as you can about what you’re looking for, because even when you find it you may not be terribly impressed with the view. As I’ve written before (S&T: January 2005, page 8), most celestial objects are small, faint, or both, so they’re best appreciated with the mind rather than the eye.

Among the relatively few exceptions to this rule, the most extreme is a total eclipse of the Sun. You don’t have to use averted vision or special filters or other tricks to experience totality. You just have to put yourself in the right place at the right time and hope for clear skies. When the Moon’s shadow arrives, it hits you over the head — big time!

I like to use the phrase "experience totality" rather than "see totality," because a total solar eclipse is the only celestial phenomenon I can think of that truly overwhelms the senses, so much so that it’s virtually impossible for a single observer to take in everything that happens. You can’t look up in the sky at the last sliver of Sun at the same time you’re looking down at the ground for shadow bands. You can’t admire the pretty sunset colors around the horizon or scan the sky for bright stars and planets while you’re examining coronal streamers in your telescope. And you can’t watch the "diamond ring" glitter at the end of totality while you’re using a diffraction grating to watch for chromospheric emission lines to flash into view.

So you end up seeing some things that others miss, and missing some things that others see. But you also feel the eclipse, as the temperature drops and the wind changes. And you hear it, too, when you and your fellow eclipse-chasers holler with excitement as the event unfolds. (In Mexico in 1991 and in the Caribbean in 1998, observers enjoyed the taste of totality too, thanks to Corona beer and Eclipse Barbados rum!)

I experienced my sixth total eclipse last March 29th in the Libyan desert, with a sizable Sky & Telescope/TravelQuest International tour group that had sailed to Libya from Italy aboard the MSC Sinfonia. Afterward, as we shared with each other what we saw, heard, and felt, I realized that this eclipse had featured almost every phenomenon I’d ever heard of in connection with totality — though as usual I hadn’t seen every one of them myself. About the only thing missing was a surprise sungrazing comet.

If you’ve never experienced totality but spend your clear nights straining at the eyepiece to check off faint fuzzies on the Messier, Caldwell, or Hershel lists, I urge you to think about traveling to totality at the next opportunity. You really owe it to yourself to check off the one celestial target that eclipses all others.

Rick Fienberg
Editor in Chief