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Added: 21 September 2001

Total Eclipse of the Sun

So I tell everybody I'm going to see a total eclipse of the sun. You might think they'd be inspired with awe at the very thought of this rare celestial phenomenon, because it's such a crazy near-miraculous coincidence of size and distance that the moon covers the sun so perfectly and reveals the corona like that. You might think they would be quite excited at the prospect of someone they knew actually going all the way to Zambia to see one. But in fact almost everyone I told said they had already seen one.

My hair cutter claimed she had seen one in right in Northampton, maybe four or five years ago. A shop clerk I told said she was pretty sure she had seen one out in Colorado in the 1980s but it wasn't any big deal. My UPS delivery guy said he had seen one too -- at night.

Surely I can be forgiven, then, for grabbing each of these people in turn by the collar and shaking them vigorously while screaming "No! You don't understand! I am talking about a TOTAL, SOLAR ECLIPSE! A total solar eclipse, do you hear me?! Total! Solar! Eclipse! You! What you saw was a partial solar eclipse! NOT THE SAME! Not even close! Who cares about your partial eclipses?! And you! Idiot! You saw a LUNAR eclipse! Boring! Boring! Boring!"

Well, rather than resort to further bouts of shouting and slapping, I offer this humble description of my total solar eclipse experience to everyone who has not been fortunate enough to see one, and especially to everyone who has not spent as much time immersed in The Big Boy's Book of Space as I have. The eclipse, which was solar, incidentally, and completely total, occurred across southern Africa, and was dramatically unlike any partial or lunar eclipses you may have seen in your own little towns. Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, was the only major city in its path, and that's where I was on the beautiful clear blue afternoon of June 21, 2001.

After arriving in Zambia the logistical question soon arises: Where exactly do you want to be during the eclipse? What exactly do you want to be doing?

The simplest thing to do of course is to stay right in Lusaka, stand anywhere, and look up at the appointed hour. It's not like you can miss it. However, as a general truth, as you yourself may have realized in your own life among your own acquaintances, many people come equipped with a built-in anal retentive complex-planning instinct. For such people it is not enough simply to travel to Zambia. They want to do something extra, take some extra steps, go that extra kilometer, do something extra clever. So there's all sorts of talk about going to Chisamba, for example. Everybody says Chisamba is the place to go. It's about an hour's drive over shit dirt roads on dodgy transport, but, oh, it is going to be worth it. Chisamba is the place to be. Why? Why must you go to Chisamba? Oh, they're getting a longer eclipse up there. Really? Longer? How much longer? I know we're getting 3 minutes 14 seconds here in Lusaka. What are they getting up there in Chisamba? Half an hour?

Turns out it's about an extra 15 seconds. For the German tourists staying in the same guesthouse as me, veterans of some four previous eclipses and self-styled eclipse connoisseurs, Chisamba was the only place to be. They chuckled at my simple-minded plan to stay in town and check out the eclipse festival at the University of Zambia. And Chris, a fine and affable Irishman also staying in the guesthouse, he's gone the Germans one better and got his heart set on getting to a certain special hill he found, up on the way to Chisamba. He reckons if he stands on that hill, up high, he might be able to see the shadow of the moon race up from the horizon and sweep over him at the moment of totality.

The shadow of the moon whizzes across the earth at about 1200 miles an hour, or so they tell me, which means you just might conceivably have a shot at seeing it coming for half a second as it approaches from the horizon before you're standing in and surrounded by its darkness.

Granted, this would be quite a cool thing to see. However, it would require that you are looking AT THE GROUND at the big moment instead of looking AT THE SUN where the actual ECLIPSE IS HAPPENING! Hello? Shadows, I've seen before!

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, the obvious place to be is the University of Zambia. You can get there in minutes, and they've got a big all-day festival planned, with dozens of local bands playing, plus food and drink, and it's all free and open to the public. Imagine my satisfaction when, after fending off Teutonically condescending chuckles for a day and a half, the German tourists at the last minute decided I was right and that they'd be better off just going to the university festival. Just give me a moment here: ha ha ha ha ha!

In any case, totality was due to hit in Lusaka at 3:09 pm. It would last, as I mentioned, for 3 minutes and 14 seconds, which is a pretty good ride as these things go. At about 1:45 pm, armed with aluminized mylar sunglasses or a good piece of green number 14 welder's glass, you could see the first edge of the moon nudging into the sun's sphere of influence from the lower left. For probably the next hour, you'd never know anything was happening if you hadn't been told. The sun, you understand, is bright. Very bright. It's so bright that you can block out 75 percent of it and you can't even tell the difference. At the point where, looking through the welder's glass, the sun is a modest slice of melon, it's still very much broad daylight out and nobody would be the wiser without our mathematicians, astronomers, and, well, welders. It's not until maybe half an hour before totality that you actually begin to sense it. The light becomes deviant, something like early twilight, only different. A cool breeze starts to blow, somehow inappropriately. The sky takes on colors it never normally has. The world begins to change. Rapidly.

By about fifteen minutes before totality, there isn't an animal in the moon's shadow path that doesn't know something has gone very odd with the world. At that point you can't miss it. The sky is weirdly dark, weirdly blue, the air is acting funny. The sun is still shining bright, you can't look at it directly, but it seems smaller, like it's been put in a bottle. People get excited, there's some adrenaline flowing, a buzz. It's chilly. The band keeps playing, and occasionally reminding people not to look except through the special glasses. You look through the special glasses and the sun is just a tiny sliver, a fingernail clipping, and still way too bright to look at unassisted. It's happening. Every moment that passes the sky turns a different new shade. New insects appear. Birds are circling that weren't there before. They seem nervous, excited. That blinding bright sliver of sun is getting smaller, smaller, but no less bright. You still can't look, it's still blinding to look. All the way up until totality, you can't look except through the glass.

Finally it's almost unbearable, there's a rush of oh my god, it's really coming, come on come on, it's really happening, the bright blinding shininess is getting so small, so small, like a pinprick of stabbing light, and it's cold, and there's wind, and then, at last, suddenly, snuff, the magic happens. Drop the glass. Look with your eyes.

And there it is. You lose your breath. It's a crazy thing to see in the sky, a dark black circle surrounded by a shrieking halo of shimmering light. It's not at all like the pictures, because the pictures can't show you what the air feels like or what it sounds like or what it really looks like hanging there, not just the Moon-Sun-Thing itself but the fact that it's right there in the sky, our sky, the sky of the earth, only now you're not on earth anymore, you're on some other planet where this great magical orb thing hovers all three dimensional in the air like some primitive dancing mask of a cosmic eye. Only it's more like a mask has come off, and there revealed at last is this laughing ball of terror, the most awe-inspiring spectacle the earth is able to produce, and it's as if billions of years are summoned to stand before you at once to the imagined sound of roaring flames and angels singing. OK, true: I happened to be on mushrooms, I may not have mentioned that. But hey. The man next to me was practically weeping, and shouting full of emotion "Oh, praise God! Ohhh, praise God!" I heard myself whisper "Holy shit." Different beliefs, same basic idea.

Then I remembered I had binoculars, and I had myself a look through them. Yes, it's good through binoculars, definitely bring your binoculars if you get the chance to see a total solar eclipse. You can see things around the edges of the moon, bright red prominences, and just the whole thing becomes bigger and clearer and sharper. Lots of people wanted a look, and I let them all have a look, finally wanting another look myself, and that's when I noticed that the red flamey spots were getting more pronounced, and there were more of them. I gave up the binoculars once more, then realized it was about to end and the guy next to me was still looking through the lenses. "Careful!" I just had time to shout and grab his arm, and he pulled the binoculars off his eyes just as the first dagger of sunlight burst out again and en masse we all roared and averted our eyes once more from the pain.

Breath returns, and laughter, and the entire crowd of people, we're all looking at each other and laughing and breathing and clapping and woo woo wooing, and the spell is broken. It's still pretty dark, but getting lighter fast, and it's a different kind of light than the light just before totality -- more like dawn now, where before it's more like dusk. The band is playing again. Were they playing the whole time?

So, let's review. Total Solar Eclipse. This is not one of those ho-hum lunar deals or something you think you might possibly have seen once a few years ago. So honestly: do make a point of catching one. Not all planets get these, you know. You're an earthling; it's your birthright. Don't miss out.