Close shave and pure joy

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 23.07.09

Siraj Hasan, the director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore, spoke to G.S. Mudur from an eclipse science camp in Anji, 200km from Shanghai. Hasan has been in Anji for about a week and leads a team of IIA eclipse trackers. Hasan’s account follows:

Gasps from first-time watchers, a hushed silence, and then cacophony from humanity. As darkness descended abruptly in the mid-morning on a hillside field in eastern China, it was an opportunity for scientific observations and for the pure thrill that comes with watching the solar orb turn into a black disc.

This field on a hillside in eastern China had been tagged as one of the world’s most favourable sites to watch Wednesday’s total solar eclipse. But we woke up to see an overcast sky with fairly thick and dark clouds.

Our chances of observing the eclipse appeared very low until about an hour before the event. Even after the first contact (the point at which the moon begins to edge itself in front of the sun) there were clouds, but then the clouds moved away and the sun was shining bright with the moon advancing against its face.

Anji was clearly one of the success sites today. By the time totality (total solar eclipse) started at 9.34am local time, there were no clouds. The mid-morning brightness turned into twilight, then it became very dark. You could even feel the temperature drop abruptly as the sun vanished completely behind the moon.

This is my fourth total solar eclipse, but it’s a unique sight, something you can never forget. We were anxious about our instruments, but we still had enough time to just look up and watch and enjoy the spectacle.

It’s a natural event made possible by the perfect alignment of the Earth, the moon and the sun. It is also the result of a coincidence -- the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, but it is also 400 times closer to the Earth. This is just the right amount to block the sun completely. If it were any larger, we would not get the spectacular total solar eclipse sight that we see, and if it was any smaller, we would at best have only partial eclipses.

We have been able to do exactly what we came to do -- gather data about the sun’s corona through two sets of experiments. Preliminary analysis suggests that the quality of the data we have got is very good.

The first time I saw an eclipse, I was too busy working with the camera to get pictures. I told myself I’m not going to make the mistake again. Today I was able to watch it for over five minutes. I also tell my colleagues each time -- whatever else you’re doing, try and get a snatch of the eclipse through your eyes. You can always see pictures later. It’s what you see with your eyes that creates the most lasting memories.