The Sun has got his hat on – A personal perspective on the solar eclipse of 20 March 2015
On 20th March 2015 I, and colleagues from the ASE, undertook an event at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to mark the partial solar eclipse that took place over Scotland that morning. We were joined by schoolchildren, Parliament staff and interested members of the public for an observing session. This is a personal perspective of my experience of that event.
Around the time of my sixth birthday in late 1978, my father took me outside one evening to the garden of my family home in Co Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. He had recently purchased a pair of binoculars and he’d decided to show me the Moon through them.
Despite being an inquisitive child, up until that moment I had never considered the nature of the celestial objects in the sky to any great degree, over and above that of any young child of my generation. My only experience of the world of astronomy had been in childhood songs, nursery rhymes and stories. You know the ones, the cow that vaulted the moon because of some social difficulties with cats, musical instruments and kitchen utensils. The little star that twinkled like a diamond and required me to ponder its nature. Or the nice Sun that helped that determined little arachnid to get to the summit of that awkward waterspout.
However, that limited view of the universe changed that night in my garden. I can still feel today the emotions I felt when I first saw the Moon through my Dad’s binoculars. This was not some fantastical barrier for cows to test their gymnastic prowess against, or a large conglomeration of green dairy produce moving through the heavens! This was a whole other world, totally separate from the one I lived on. It had mountains, and valleys and plateaus, just like the Earth. But, it was not the Earth, it was out there, separate, distant. I was fascinated, captivated, exhilarated. Even as a small child I realised for the first time that my home was not some all-enveloping reality that ended at my front door. Rather, I was perched on a spherical rock in space, orbited by a smaller spherical rock.
That first encounter with the universe is where this story may have ended for me. And I might have, like so many other children who grow up, never giving more than a passing thought to the universe above my head. However, the deal was sealed for me just six short months later.
At some point in early 1979 we bought our first colour TV set. I was too young to remember why – maybe my father was fed up of watching sports programmes in black and white. Watching Terry Griffiths play Ireland’s own Dennis Taylor is a lot easier to understand when you can tell the pink ball from the green ball on the snooker table.
Or maybe it’s because later that year, Pope John Paul II was due to visit Ireland. And much like Coronation of The Queen for British people in 1953, for predominately catholic Ireland in 1979, everyone just had to have a new television to see that lovely Polish man in the white outfit.
Whatever the reason, neither of these great historic events were the highlight of 1979 for me. My moment of 1979 came sometime in the spring when the first time lapse images from a little spacecraft called Voyager I appeared on our new colour TV set. The sight of the storm bands circling round Jupiter, and the churning great Red Spot, captivated me. Suddenly, here was another world separate from either the Earth or the Moon. Just how BIG was this space???
And then the crowning moment came when a small black shadow darted across the massive face of Jupiter. At first, most lay people probably thought this was just a defect in the image, or a piece of cosmic dirt on the tiny camera lens, tens of millions of miles away in the darkness.
But of course it was neither of these things. It was the shadow of yet another moon. Not our Moon, the NASA voiceover told us, but that of one of Jupiter’s moons. WAIT, WHAT?! – Jupiter has its own moons! And in that moment I realised what it was I had been trying to tand since the observing session with my Dad some months earlier. There was a whole complex universe out there, with lots of objects orbiting lots of other objects. I was sold, transfixed, shot through with emotional electricity. A six year old glued to the universe. And best of all, it didn’t make me feel small, or afraid, or insignificant, or dizzy from the vertiginous vastness of its all. It made me feel big, and giddy and alive and part of a huge universe of motion. Shut up astronomy, you had me at hello – or should that be you had me at Ganymede?
I became one of those kids who didn’t just have pictures of moons, planets and stars on the walls of his bedroom. No, I was the one who had them pinned all over the ceiling too, so I could lie on my bed and look at the night sky whenever I wanted. The fluorescent star chart was my favourite because it was great in the dark. My own personal indoor universe.
This for me is the true magic of astronomy. As I have grown up I have learned about the mindboggling size of the universe, and of gravity and electromagnetism and dark matter. I’ve learned that the biography of the universe is written in the language of mathematics, and chemistry and quantum physics, a good deal of Latin, Greek and Arabic. And even though I’m just an amateur, I love ALL of it. But, most of all I love the fact that every time I look through a telescope, or binoculars or just stare at the night sky, I feel that giddy wonder of my six year old self again – every single time!
So on 20th March 2015 I got to share a solar eclipse with 40 giddy six and seven year olds from the Royal Mile Primary School. And though I spent most of the eclipse indoors, watching it on a big screen with the kids, it didn’t matter so much. Because at one point in the morning I looked out the window of Committee Room 3 of the Scottish Parliament with a small solar viewer I’d hidden away in my pocket, and I got to see my old friend the Moon take a great big bite out of the Sun, who had his hat on for the morning. And I was giddy, elated, I was six again.
And the excited, breathless questions those children asked me as we watched the eclipse together, live from the BBC, in Committee Room 3 made me hope that – if for just one of those kids, this eclipse was their moons of Jupiter moment, like I’d experienced at their age – then all of the work and effort to set up the event would have been totally worth it.How long does it take light to get from the Sun to the Earth the kids asked? How far away are the planets? Why does the Moon go round the Earth? How bright are the stars? Are there aliens out there? When you’re six years old you’re fearless.
20th March 2015 is the first time I’ve seen a solar eclipse in the flesh. It won’t be the last time. And next time I won’t be indoors. But while this Journal is, no doubt, replete with the scientific language of astronomy, I am struck by how insufficient Latin and mathematics are to convey the emotional effect such an event had on me. Ironically, it is in verse and rhyme I find, that the feeling of sheer wonder and awe that such a natural event as a solar eclipse can have on people, is most accurately expressed.
Just like Hey Diddle Diddle, or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star I am back where I started, and maybe that experience holds part of the true nature of what the universe is, and what it means to be part of it?
And as for my musings on the nature of the Moon, well these days my preferred nursery rhyme on that topic goes something like this—
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth, –
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
– To the Moon, by Percy Shelley