My eclipse experience was rather different to the event I was expecting. When Seán first proposed the idea of hosting an event outside the Parliament, I thought it was a great idea. Something new, a nice setting, plenty of hard standing for telescopes, and maybe a little bit of publicity for the Society and astronomy in Edinburgh. After various meetings with the Parliament, the Society’s council and many, many emails back and forth covering all manner of topics (including verification that Arthur’s Seat wouldn’t be in the way!), I was getting decidedly worried that the weather would ruin the big event which was unfolding.
When the sun was shining on the morning of the eclipse, I was dutifully sceptical – well how many astronomers in Scotland don’t assume the worst? But as the sun was still shining when we reached the Parliament, a little bit of hope took hold and steadily began to grow. Maybe, just maybe, the weather would be kind to us for once.
Even as we were setting up at 7.30am, there were a small number of people gathered outside the Parliament – whether because they knew we would be there, or because they had just thought it would be a good place to observe the eclipse I don’t know, but it is nice to think it was because of the ASE! I ended up inside to help set up for the school groups which would be coming in for a short talk on eclipses, and then to observe the event either on television screens broadcasting pictures from the Faroes, or with solar viewers for the older children. Ken and Seán had kindly agreed to talk to a group each of older and younger children and we had various hand-outs set out for anyone who wanted more information.
Seán had a solar viewer tucked away in his pocket, and while we were getting organised we managed to sneak our first glimpse of the eclipse through the window of a conference room. I knew what to expect – I had witnessed eclipses before, albeit none which reached the percentage of totality that this one did – and this small bite of darkness out of the sun’s disk shouldn’t have been a shock to me. But I found myself feeling utterly incredulous and completely gleeful all at the same time – our moon is actually blocking the sun from view. This should be impossible, but due to all manner of little coincidences, the conditions on Earth are such that we can see eclipses happening every so often, and it truly is an epic natural phenomenon.
Just as the talks were getting underway, a member of the Parliament staff came looking for Seán, now occupied by 40 school children, for help with the crowds outside. When it became clear that some queue management was needed – someone who could figure out which of the scopes was ready for the next person to come and have a look, and point them in the right direction – I have to admit to being a little bemused. We had somewhere in the region of 6 scopes set up and various people with eclipse glasses, projection set-ups, binoculars and colanders as well – there should be plenty instruments there to deal with the small groups of people who would like a look at the eclipse!
Being the only person available for the job, I went outside with the concerned member of staff, and was greeted by a sight I never could have anticipated. The queue for the telescopes meandered away from the scopes and off around the building. I have no idea how many people were in the queue but it must have been easily in excess of two hundred people, and there were many, many more people standing around the site watching the eclipse through their own solar viewers, taking photos or using pin-hole projection.
In a state of mild shock, I managed to ascertain which scopes were good to go and started directing people to the next available telescope. As others managed to get aligned on the sun (surprisingly difficult, as you can’t directly look at it to point the scope, and the sun is a deceptively small object in the sky), we got into a steady rhythm which would have got through most queues in pretty short order. As it was, the people kept coming as the eclipse progressed, and the queue didn’t seem to diminish significantly!
Eventually, around mid-eclipse, thin clouds started coming in and obscuring the sun. While this meant that the scopes were rendered useless until a gap in the cloud (assuming the sun hadn’t tracked too far across the sky in the meantime), it did mean that the crowd was suddenly able to see, with the naked eye, what was going on. The combined dimming of light from the cloud cover, and sudden hush and gasp from the crowd was a very eerie experience, but an exciting one nonetheless as it was blatantly clear that everyone was feeling exactly the same amazement and excitement at the spectacle.
As mid-eclipse passed and the clouds got worse, the queue for the telescopes dwindled away to a few die-hards who were willing to wait it out to get a telescopic view of the eclipse between the clouds. Everyone relaxed and the views we did manage to snatch were much less hurried.
When the eclipse was finally over, we gathered together, all the equipment packed away, and started exchanging stories of the exclamations members of the public had made over the sights they saw in the telescopes, the questions asked, and the number of people whose eyesight was saved by some quick intervention! Seán very kindly took us all into the Parliament cafe where we spent a good hour chatting about all things astronomical, providing a very welcome and sociable end to a busy event.
Throughout my queue management role, I was very grateful to Alan Ellis and Dorothy Mackie who stopped by whilst mingling with the crowds and sharing their eclipse glasses around, so that I could have a peek too – not having mine on me when I left the building was a big mistake! I was also very grateful to Scott Provan for the views of the eclipse he dragged me over to see through his scope, between members of the public, ensuring I got a chance to view the event I was so busy trying to help everyone else see.
While part of me wishes I could have observed the entire eclipse unhindered, and had ample opportunities to take photos, given the chance to go back and do it again I wouldn’t change my mind. The eclipse was incredible in itself, but being able to share the experience with so many people was unbelievable. It amplified the excitement and meant that there was always someone to exclaim about it with. I also find it so much more exciting and satisfying to observe with all my friends from the ASE, as we all share the same passion for astronomy, and no one looks at you oddly for getting so excited about such geeky topics. Well… most of the time anyway!