This morning I saw my first solar eclipse. I live in Cornwall so it was a partial eclipse with around 85% of the moon covering the sun but i don’t really care about all that, the fact is, i saw an event that i probably won’t see again and it feels extremely special to have been part of this.
This solar eclipse was only a total eclipse in in the higher latitudes and the only inhabited places in the world to see it were the Faroe Islands and Svalbard. But the UK got a fantastic display despite this. I had been very excited about seeing this as my previous luck with eclipses and other rare astronomical phenomena has been pretty poor. Since i have been interested in astronomy there have been 3 eclipses of the moon that i have known about and tried to see but have failed each time due to poor weather. Therefore i was approaching this event with a part of caution knowing that it would be possible that the cloud would stop me from seeing the eclipse. However i was lucky and this morning i woke to lovely clear skies. I packed up a bag with my homemade pinhole camera i put together in 5 minutes the night before along with a pair of solar eclipse glasses (which seem to have become more rare than the eclipse itself!) and headed up to my old school field to watch it. When i arrived the moon had just made first contact with the sun at 8.18am, the first time i looked at it i was amazed. I have never seen anything like this before so i didn’t know what i would see, but it exceeded all my expectations. Peering through the glasses, I saw the orange globe of the sun surrounded by a black sky, with the black silhouette of the moon slowly creeping across the sun’s surface. I watched and looked away after my eyes became tired. So i didn’t miss any of the eclipse when i looked away i took out my pinhole camera and used this to project an image of the sun safely onto a white card.
At around 9.20am the eclipse had reached its maximum, i looked at the sun through the glasses again to see only a thin strip of the orange sun in the shape of a smile. This only lasted for 2 minutes though it felt like longer. The birds in the trees had stopped singing the dawn chorus and the crows nesting near the school buildings suddenly flew out in panic. The world seemed to go quiet as if the sun’s temporary disappearance had put some kind of spell over us all. It grew darker, not totally dark of course but the sort of light levels that are experienced in the twilight of a late summer evening. It got colder too, which i didn’t expect, and this all added to the strange experience of it all.
At 9.23am, the sun started to return. Slowly, the warmth started to return and the birds began to sing again. People nearby me also began to talk and move around again. it was as if the world had been released from this mysterious spell. I watched the sun return and the moon move on and disappear for a while before heading home.
Experiencing this eclipse made me think about how humans are so caught up in the chaos of modern life that we tend to forget about our place in the universe. I think one of the many wonders of the eclipse is that it makes us stop and realise that we are on this small rock orbiting around an ordinary star which is just one in an unimaginable number of stars in a unimaginable number of galaxies. It can make you feel rather small and vulnerable. The effect that the disappearance of the sun for a moment also shows us how reliant we are on the sun for everything, not just light and energy but its presence seems to be what drives the world. When it disappeared, behaviours changed in both humans and animals, so the sun is the basis for the rhythm that keeps the world in order. if you think about it, the sun does control many simple aspects of our lives that we take for granted such as telling us when to get up in the morning and signalling the end of a day. Just the concept of time is shaped by the sun.
However, the eclipse also shows me how unique and special our earth is as there is no where else in the solar system where a total eclipse can be experienced. Many planets can experience a partial eclipse but none a total eclipse. This is because of a wonderful coincidence. The sun’s diameter is 400 times larger than that of the moon but is also 400 times further away (earthsky, 2013). This means when the moon passes between the earth and the sun it is able to fit perfectly over the sun. This does not happen anywhere else. It does make me realise that even though the earth can seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it is still special as it is unique in many ways. We may never know if the earth is the only place in the universe for life to exist, I for one believe that there must be somewhere in the universe where life has evolved even if it is not how we expect life to look like. But for now we can appreciate the fact that we are the only place we can be 100% certain that life exists and i think that makes us rather special.
Earthsky, (26th June 2013), Coincidence that sun and moon seem same size?, website accessed 20th March 2015, <http://earthsky.org/space/coincidence-that-sun-and-moon-seem-same-size>
Partial eclipse from Plymouth, (2015) WalesOnline, viewed on 20th March 2015, <http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/solar-eclipse-2015-best-pictures-8881522>