Saturday, February 19, 2005

Recalling the Eclipse of 1999

Tihany village, North shore of Lake Balaton, Hungary.

11 August 1999.


This shows the gang assembled in the churchyard. Ady and Sarah, who also work at the lab, were in the town on the same day and we met up with them to view the event. Dawn is pictured sitting next to the device we used to project an image of the eclipse on to a nearby screen. It consists of a small camera tripod, a make-up mirror, and several post-it notes arranged to form a pinhole.


The all-important screen is again formed of pieces of paper and post-it notes. Jason's motorcycle helmet serves as a support. This was about 3 or 4 ft away from the mirror. We were able to view the shadow of the moon as it crossed the sun, in complete safety and without straining our necks. Passers-by were amused the apparatus that we had set up. We were pleasantly surprised as well since it was totally unplanned! The other two shots show the images of the sun formed by the light passing through natural pinholes (gaps between the leaves of the trees). It was possible to make similar images by holding up cracks in the fingers and thumbs. These effects were seen for about an hour either side of the total eclipse.


The totality itself, not shown in any photos here, was spectacular! We were gripped with suspense in the minutes leading up to the total eclipse because a large bank of cloud had arrived. It looked as if they would threaten our pleasure. At almost the last minute however the clouds vanished leaving us with a good view of the sun. Since the churchyard at that time was thronged with people, there was quite an atmosphere. In our high vantage point we were able to see red skies all around, a 360 degrees sunset!

Our excitement got to a high point as the points of the crescent sun approached one another. With a few seconds to go before totality, only a few bright spots could be seen on the remaining edges of the sun. These were the famous Bailey's beads. At last even these disappeared from view, leaving just the corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun, in view.

It took about 20 seconds for us to become accustomed to the darkness, and to be able to see the corona properly. There must have been a little bit of haze at high altitude, since the structures in the corona were not particularly clear. Some binoculars may have been quite useful at this point! Despite that, it was the most amazing feeling to look at this strange object high in the sky. It seemed so bizarre and unusual. Knowing what it was seemed to make it even more wonderful. Thinking about the objects in space, arranged so perfectly, just seemed to intensify the feeling of strangeness. At this point I really felt as if I could appreciate the astronomical distances of our solar system.

At our site in central Hungary, the totality lasted for about 2 1/2 minutes. There was plenty of time to look around and drink in the strange atmosphere of the crowd. As the time went on the eyes became more accustomed to the low light levels, and the corona seemed to expand accordingly.

It was soon time to reach for our protective glasses, as the so-called diamond ring started to become visible. This drew a loud gasp and a cheer from the people.

After that, there seemed to be a universal feeling of anti-climax. The light levels gradually increased to normality, and the temperature, which had taken a sudden dive during the eclipse itself, took some hours to return to the midsummer levels. The crowds dispersed quietly, with none of the excited chatter apparent before the event. I suspect that most people were feeling emotionally overwhelmed, and did not know what to say to their neighbours.

We retired to an inn for lunch and conversation.

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