Celestial Bodies


The upcoming total solar eclipse in the United States may be seen by millions of people. It’ll be a most memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, in a way almost mystical.

I remember the sad feelings I had when clouds prevented hundreds of thousands of Germans to closer watch the totality in August 1999. Weeks before, we had prepared ourselves with eye protection to watch SoFi, as it was called, without fearing eye damage. I was working at the German Armed Forces’ Hospital in Koblenz then, still living in Heidelberg. I had taken a day off. The northern margin of the totality zone was south of Heidelberg, not even 20 km. But in its center, we were promised more than 2 min of darkness.

Weather forecast for 11 August shortly after noon was uncertain. You may see the distribution of clouds at the time when the moon’s shadow crossed Europe on the animated GIF above. Last minute information was only 10% visibility in Karlsruhe, about 60 km south of Heidelberg, and 50% in Saarbrücken, 150 km to the east. I decided to start early and go west. But gosh, immediately when having turned to the highway, I noticed that probably hundreds of thousands had exactly the same idea. Believe it or not, there was an exactly 150 km long caravan of cars behind cars, stop and go. For some time I had actually little hope to even reach Saarbrücken in time. The totality there was expected at 12:30 pm.

But I managed. About 11:30 am, I arrived among large numbers of others a small town in the vicinity of Saarbrücken and drove my car to a parking spot. I walked around and looked to the sky. The cloud situation was promising. Weather seemed to improve. A warm August sun was shining and people prepared for a picnic and opened their champagne bottles. With my eye protection, it was easy to see that half of the sun or even more was already covered by the moon. But daylight appeared unchanged, in particular as there were lots of clouds.

Well, there were more underway. At 12:20 pm, even thunderclouds seemed to build. And then the totality approached at the speed of a raging train. People around me were silently watching complete darkness arriving, … and going. And, after 2 min, all was over. Nothing else had been seen. I remember the deep sadness which befell me. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed. We had been told that the next total eclipse of the sun visible in Germany would be not before 3 September 2081.

And then, hundreds of thousands, when driving back, got stuck in the second traffic jam that day. All was even more tragic as I was told the next day that friends of mine had comfortably watched the totality on their terrace in Bammental, a small town somewhat southeast of Heidelberg.

Another total solar eclipse occurred on 29 March 2006 which was visible in parts of Africa and Asia. In Kuwait, the sun was partially eclipsed by the moon, and at FOD of Kuwait University, except me, nobody took special attention. I used a cardboard box with a pinhole as simple camera obscura and projected the half-eclipsed sun to the floor. Our Dean was amazed to see the image. One Kuwaiti student, who I showed that the eclipse was already underway, decided to do his prayers.

On 20 March 2015, another total solar eclipse could theoretically be visible on Svalbard, far in the Arctic Ocean. As I spent time in Germany, I do not know what happened in Tromsø, my current hometown. Friends told me, that it was nicely visible, albeit not total, of course.

For tomorrow, I wish all Americans wonderful weather and a spiritual feeling of bigger things out there.

20 August 2017 @ 7:59 am

Last modified August 20, 2017.


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