What adjective, what superlative hasn't been badly overworked in attempts to describe total eclipses of the Sun? Not only are these eclipses utterly foreign to humdrum life-experiences, and thus confound story-telling, their unworldly coloring of our atmosphere creates equally strange preludes and postludes, which also defy description. So I live in perpetual purgatory because of my inability to paint a succinct word portrait, at least to my satisfaction, of the total-eclipse experience. After having seen more than a dozen eclipses -- from land, sea, and air -- words still fail me.
Yet, why can I read a resume of Botticelli's "Venus Rising from the Sea" and appreciate, at least at an elementary level, the critic's sense of that painting? Or why can I read a review of new music and come away with an idea of what it sounds like and how I might react to it?
Maybe we journalists and poets haven't seen enough eclipses to formulate a vocabulary and a syntax. (I believe Eskimos have some two score words to precisely characterize ice in its various forms. We do not have 40 different words to precisely characterize eclipses!)
Thus the authors of Totality should take a bow. Their book does the best job yet of capturing all eclipse experiences while making the mechanics of the phenomenon understandable to everyone. Its first edition came out in 1991 and immediately became one of my standard references -- those in my office that I can grab while holding onto the telephone. I don't think Totality has ever failed me when I've had some anxious questioner on the line or when I've needed a quick fact-check.
So it delights me that Mark Littmann and Ken Willcox decided to produce an updated, enlarged edition. And it delights me doubly that they've taken on Fred Espenak as a third author. He has set a new standard for eclipse prediction and map-making; his charts showing where eclipses will occur are both precise and really useful!
A consciousness of eclipses has been around as long as sentient beings, albeit a malevolent consciousness for perhaps 99.9 percent of our existence on Earth. Only for the past 3,000 years or so have eclipses been understood as a predictable, repetitive, natural phenomenon. For some cultures, this recognition of inevitability and rhythm washed away fears. For others it didn't; eclipses are still anticipated with foreboding and accompanied by taboos among many of our world's peoples.
How incredibly macabre it must be for those societies to see tourists flocking to their country for the opportunity to stand in the dreaded shadow of the Moon. Sociologically, this is a new phenomenon indeed. Such eclipse migrations are little more than a generation old, a thousandth of one percent of human history. Dating the beginning is precise: the voyage of the cruise ship
People can now regularly and conveniently travel not only to where an eclipse will occur, but to where it is likely to occur in a clear sky. So the opportunity to view nature's greatest spectacle has become as predictable as the eclipse itself! You simply buy a ticket and go to it as if it were a venue on any ordinary holiday. (In February 1998 I estimated that some 20,000 folks boarded cruise ships to witness an eclipse in the Caribbean, and who knows how many thousands of others opted for land packages.)
No one should pass through life without seeing a total solar eclipse. It's not a "science thing;" it's an experience as profound as recognizing a bird's voice or appreciating a contrary point of view. It's simply something that should be done.
Please don't believe that you've seen an eclipse because of a picture on TV or in a magazine. All images,
Each total solar eclipse is unique, and each one I've seen is indelibly etched in my mind. But equally so is the place, the people, and the ambience of the moment -- from maneuvering a ship in the Celebes Sea or an aircraft over Finland to setting up a camera next to a dung heap on Java.
With Totality you are excellently prepared to begin, or continue, your quest for darkness after daybreak. Warning: This pursuit is as addictive and insatiable as eating that first potato chip.
For more information, see:
Totality - Eclipses of the SunSecond Edition
by Mark Littmann, Ken Willcox and Fred Espenak
All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or World Wide Web, without written permission of the authors.
Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for more information.
Last revised: 2008 Jan 22