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Solar eclipse was real-life astronomy lesson for millions

May 21, 2012 | 10:53 am

The eclipse as seen from Texas

Across the country, the solar eclipse Sunday seemed to kindle an infectious enthusiasm for astronomy.

In New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, Jay Anderson, a Canadian eclipse expert who runs the website Eclipser, marveled at the spectacle. He particularly enjoyed how the eclipse happened on a Sunday. The last "ring of fire" eclipse Anderson attended in the United States, he said, was "characterized by warnings not to watch and descriptions of the dangers of looking at the Sun, despite the fact that we all do it on occasion."

"This one, being on a Sunday when schools could not intervene with their overly protective attitude, got the whole countryside watching, and the general message seems to have been to go out and enjoy the spectacle, with proper eye protection. It's a good message to carry forward, with a major total eclipse coming to the U.S. in five more years," Anderson wrote to The Times. 


Anderson said where he was located, skies were completely clear — too clear, even, because he likes "a little cloud to give the event a bit of drama." There were eclipse veterans and newcomers, and he enjoyed watching the character of light change off the red rocks of the canyon. 

"That change in the lighting is very familiar to me (I've seen more than 20 eclipses), and it lends a kind of other-wordly feeling to the environment that seems to be signalling that something is afoot. It's not ominous, but I can imagine that unsophisticated societies, unaware of an eclipse, would be drawn to looking upward because the landscape had adopted that strange illumination," Anderson wrote. 

"We had fun making crescent suns for the kids by interlacing our fingers to create pinhole images on the ground, and showing them the gradually encroaching Moon. I passed out lots of eclipse glasses and filter material for cameras, and the whole mood was one of good company and camaraderie," he wrote. "I had a good time, watched the Sun set behind the hills while still a crescent, introduced a few more people to the magic of celestial geometry, and took a few photos for my memories. A good day."

The partial solar eclipse reached its peak in Los Angeles at 6:38 p.m., and visitors at the Griffith Observatory counted down the seconds at the top of their lungs before letting out a wail of excitement.

"The light is dimmer. The air is cooler," a woman said over a loudspeaker. "Nature gets a little strange during an eclipse."

Ryan Berg, 20, of Los Angeles watched the crescent-shaped image of the sun through a massive telescope. "That is so cool! Look at that," he said. "The light is so thin and wavy."

Observatory spokeswoman Susan Szotyori said more than 3,000 people watched the eclipse from the institute's mountaintop perch.

Some visitors decided to avoid the long lines for telescopes and watch the partial solar eclipse with homemade devices.

"We tried to buy special glasses and called five or 10 places, but everything was sold out," said Julie Lim of Arcadia, who used a pinhole viewer made out of cardboard packaging that came with gift wrap. She said it was the perfect way to help her 8-year-old daughter Iris monitor the eclipse's progress.

"We wanted to show our daughter that you need to think about what you can accomplish with your own hands without relying on anyone else," Lim said.

Solar eclipse as seen from JapanIn Japan, Anthony Weiss, a native of Florida, faced clouds in his Tokyo neighborhood and feared he wouldn't be able to see the "ring" eclipse, when the moon blocks all but the sun's outer edge.

But the clouds lightened up just enough for him to see the spectacle, which he photographed with his 8-year-old Canon PowerShot SD300.

"I could very clearly see the ring," Weiss told The Times.

Conditions were not so good atop Mt. Fuji, where Panasonic, trying to showcase its solar technology, had hired a team of climbers to broadcast the eclipse from Japan's tallest peak. The crew faced a windy snowstorm and battled to keep their footing.

And in Hong Kong, a storm ruined the view. "Cloudy in Hong Kong, no luck for the solar #eclipse, so sad," tweeted @hanggyho.

The next eclipse?

You'll have to wait awhile. The continental United States won't see another good show for five years. And Los Angeles won't see as stunning a show for 59 years.

But here is a sampling of what's next in store for the solar eclipse front in the United States.

2014: A partial solar eclipse is in store for the western United States on Oct. 23, 2014. Western Canada, Alaska and the northern edge of the U.S. border from Washington state to Wisconsin should have the best view, with more than 60% of the sun's diameter (its center line) blocked by the moon's shadow. California and the Southwest should see more than 40% of the sun's diameter covered.

2017: This is the one to travel for. A "total" solar eclipse -- an even better one than Sunday's "ring" eclipse -- will completely cover the sun's light, blotting out even the sun's outer fringes. Total eclipses are far more exciting because they will shroud the land in an eerie midday twilight. The Aug. 21, 2017, total eclipse will glide through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, northeastern Kansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky, Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and South Carolina.

Los Angeles will see more than 60% of the sun's diameter covered up by the moon.


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-- Rong-Gong Lin II

Photos: Top, an annular eclipse on Sunday seen near Cadillac Ranch, Texas. Below, the eclipse seen from Tokyo. Credits: Michael Schumacher / Amarillo Globe News via Associated Press; Anthony Weiss