What is an Eclipse

‘What is an eclipse?’ was the first obvious question the kids asked, on hearing the exciting news that we were actually going on a day out to witness one! We tried to put it in these simple terms for them before we left home that day, as there are some common misconceptions around issues to do with eclipses. One mistake is to think that the phases of the Moon happen because the Earth gets in the way, and casts its shadow onto the Moon. That is not how the phases are caused.we wanted to clear this up in relation to eclipses, so the kids would have a better understanding of the ‘Big Day!’

The kids associated eclipses with moon phases. However sometimes it does happen that the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon. Then we get an eclipse of the Moon. The whole Moon goes from full, to dark, and back again to full, in the course of a few hours.

However, the word ‘eclipse’ does not always have to relate to the sun or moon. It can refer to the blocking of light of one celestial object by another, either completely or just in part. Moon or Sun eclipses occur when the Moon, and Sun and Earth are aligned. In solar eclipses the Moon comes between the Sun and Earth. In total solar eclipses, the disk of the Moon fully covers the sun’s, and only the corona of the Sun can be seen.
However, an annular eclipse happens when the Moon is farthest from the Earth in it’s orbit – its disk doesn’t completely cover the Sun’s, and part of the Sun’s photosphere can be seen like a ring around the Moon. During lunar eclipses however, all or a part of the Moon’s disk comes into the umbra of Earth’s shadow and isn’t any longer illuminated by the Sun. These lunar eclipses happen only during a full moon as the Moon is then directly opposite the Sun.

How exciting to hear that our family would be privileged to be eyewitnesses to “totality” in a solar eclipse and it was to be a very spooky event indeed. We were however, unprepared for the extremes of “spookiness” antics that some folk were planning! In our part of the country we were excited to find out, “totality” would be 100%. We made our plans for the profound event, and prepared to be witnesses to “The Racing Darkness.” Here is our eyewitness account.

First, we did our research. In addition to the details we had heard through the media, we did some web searches. We discovered that there are different sorts of eclipse. When Earth passes through the Moon’s shadow, it is called a solar eclipse. When the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow, it is called a lunar eclipse. Only during the Full Moon phase can the Moon pass through the Earths shadow. To begin with, this eclipse is so gradual it is hardly visible as it starts to unfold. Then the Moon becomes slowly darker. The next changes are more dramatic as the colours actually change to violet or orange. Then it almost appears navy blue or black, almost totally dark. The whole moon even appears to disappear from view until it becomes gradually brighter and brighter again until it is its usual self back to appearing as a Full moon. This sounded exciting enough, but better was to come. Our eclipse was to be a Solar Eclipse.

This was also slightly worrying as dire warnings were being given out referring to the dangers of looking directly at the sun. We were exhorted not to let children do this under any circumstances due to potential eyesight deterioration. We worried about this but were pleased to see that special disposable sunglasses were being distributed so we bought some. Disappointingly, two days before the great event, even these were reported by the media to be unsafe. We had a dilemma. Some people were making the recommended white cardboard sheets which reflect the event on paper. Messing about with cardboard did not seem to us to be very exciting at all, and didn’t seem to respect the enormity of the event. We decided to let the kids use the prescribed glasses but only for a second or two.

We explained to them about the different sorts of solar eclipse and that during this time the Moon passes in front of the Sun, either partially or totally blocking it from sight. This happens only during a new Moon phase. Sometimes the Moon blocks the Sun totally. Or it can look as if it has a round chunk taken out of it. At other times the Moon travels directly in front of the sun without totally obscuring its face.

The children were pleased to hear that “our” eclipse was to be a total one because that meant the moon would completely cover the suns face. If it had been only partial, the sun would only have been partially covered by the moons shadow, making a round dark patch on its edge. This is also similar to an annular eclipse, where the moon does travel directly across the sun’s face but because of its distance from earth, it doesn’t totally cover it. This means that a very pretty bright ring effect is seen, which is the sun’s outer edge still visible around the moon.

So, suitably informed and equipped with the obligatory shades, picnic and rug we set off to seek the best vantage point. Surprisingly, some people were intending to watch the great celestial event from their own back gardens. This didn’t seem special enough to do the event justice. Then we heard that a local antiquarian hilltop site, though a minor monument, afforded sweeping views both to the west of the West Country and to the east. This was probably why the ancients had chosen the site for a fortified settlement in the first place. Our minds were made up this seemed suitably ceremonial!

When we arrived, everyone was anxiously checking out the weather. Although sunny enough for the onlookers to sunbathe on their rugs and apply sun cream, the sunshine was intermittent due to heavy cloud cover. Worrying! Everyone looked at their watches. With twenty minutes to go, many had arrived early. How lame to arrive after the event! People chatted and as the seconds ticked by, everyone started looking at everybody else, checking them out. Were they starting to look west yet?

Then, one or two people stood up as the sky became a gloomier grey. We got out our glasses. Shockingly, one or two folks had just their hands up to their eyes. Maybe they figured that at their age, it didn’t matter as much. We put on our sweaters as it was getting chilly and looked west. Stretching out below us was the broad sweep of the coastal plain and hills, lightly wooded with hedges and little fields like a patchwork quilt.

One minute the vista seemed to glow in the hazy light, then its shapes began to take on a sharper definition. It was in shadow. Excitedly our eyes swept further west down towards the sea and we shivered. Sure enough, the shadow was coming from the west, darkening all the while, gradually at first. We remarked upon how cold our fingers and toes were and slapped our arms against our sides. Then the dark sweep of the shadow was upon us, moving faster now, it had come racing towards us. The effect was strange and mysterious, perhaps not spiritual but certainly other-worldly. Some people would say it was like Genesis the hand of God moving across the land. The racing darkness was chasing across the surface of our globe, the planet Earth, and would soon leave us behind to continue its sweep of the planet’s surface. We felt awed and even humbled by the celestial events in Space.

The effect felt like the chill dusk of an early winter evening although we had been told to expect totality and complete darkness. It was not total night or darkness but maybe this was just as well as it was spooky enough for us and the kids. People gazed upwards as the clouds parted for a minute. Using our glasses for the briefest moment we did witness the eclipse of the sun’s face, although being so careful, the memory is now very fleeting.

Although we had been prepared well for the events we could expect to see, the cold took us by surprise. No-one had told us to bring overcoats. It was a different sort of cold to a winter day. The chill appeared to come from within the body, from the very bones and our first thoughts were to get home and warm up. Subdued, we joined the quiet crowd heading towards the cars. One amusing scene we did see on our way out was a stone-hugger! In a field. A woman was sitting next to a Standing Stone, an ancient site, with her arms around it! Moved as we had been by the Movements Of The Heavens, we were not, obviously, as overcome by it as this lady was!

One thought that did strike us on our journey home though concerned our chilly bodies. We had experienced a few minutes without the sun and were already cold. With Global Warming on the horizon, how will future generations cope? And what of the Ancients? They were not equipped with the knowledge that we take for granted today, that the eclipse would pass and there would be no lasting harm. How terrified some of them must have been.

It was a good discussion to have with the kids and made us all think about stewarding this planet of ours in the future