Shadow of the Moon

by wjw on May 24, 2006

March 29, 2006.

Shadow of the Moon

On the day of the eclipse I was permitted to sleep late, so I did. When I made my leisurely way out of the buffet carrying my breakfast, I found Kathy on the terrace overlooking the sea, talking with a Belgian couple who had flown down for the eclipse. The husband understood English, I think, but wasn’t up to talking it; the wife spoke English fairly well. Kathy speaks French much better than I do, so a bilingual conversation had begun by the time I arrived. Coping with a foreign language is not the first thing I care to do of a morning, but after a couple cups of tea I found my French coming back, and managed to slur out a few complete sentences.

The Belgian gent claimed to be from Bastard, a town in the Ardennes. He was surprised more Americans hadn’t heard of it, since a battle was fought there in the Second World War. Since I didn’t want to appear a complete chowderhead, I allowed as I had heard of Bastogne, and St. Vith, and Spa (where my citizen-soldier father was injured during a retreat), but that Bastard had somehow escaped my attention.

(I suspect that the town of Bastard may be some kind of Belgian in-joke, since my attempts to find it either on a map or online has failed. Google reveals a lot of in-jokey references to “Belgian bastards,” though.)

Our group had originally planned to view the eclipse from Side. Seeing the eclipse through the frame of Roman arches or past the pillars of the temple of Apollo would have been downright cool, but the Turkish government was unable to guarantee our privacy. Apparently thousands of people were going to Side for the event, some of whom were going to participate in neo-pagan ceremonies. I have no particular objection to neo-pagans or the things they get up to, but the last thing I wanted during an awesome major astronomical event was a bunch of damnfools chanting at me, or yelling “So mote it be!”, or beating drums, or (even worse) playing solos on the Native American flute. (Those guys should be choked.)

I prefer my spirituality silent, thank you.

A large chunk of the beach in the front of our hotel had been reserved for our group, and we were provided with box lunches that were pretty good, as box lunches go. We didn’t quite see the point in getting sand in our shoes when the hotel itself provided so many excellent platforms with which to view the eclipse. All of those stepped-back balconies, for instance. We tried to set up the telescope on one of the hotel’s two helipads, but discovered that they were reserved for some rich French asshole and his friends. We ended up putting the Astroscan on the same terrace where we had breakfast, and watched the eclipse with Debra and Cheryl and an assortment of passers-by and hotel employees.

Democrats, that’s us.

Each hotel in the area had some gimmick to attract tourists wanting to view the eclipse. The Sunrise Queen had classical music, in the form of a trio that was gamely playing away near one of the ornamental pools. On those rare occasions when I could actually hear them— when I was going to the men’s room, usually— they didn’t sound particularly inspired.

Not that I cared. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Radio Symphony could have been booming away and I would have granted them the same annoyed scorn I would the chowderhead with the Native American flute. And I like classical music.

It’s just that when Nature puts on a sublime spectacle, no sound track is required.

The morning was hot. I had packed a wardrobe suitable for Istanbul in March— a Maritime climate with misty cold mornings and bright crisp breezy afternoons, so I was forced to improvise. I changed into a pair of bathing trunks, and I rolled up my sleeves (I had brought no short-sleeved shirts). I bought a baseball cap in one of the hotel shops to keep my head from blistering in the sun. They had gimme caps with “England” on them, and the royal arms, and “France” with fleurs-de-lys, but nothing local. I asked if they had a cap with something Turkish on it, and the salesman went into the back room and got a cap with “Türkiye” in flowing script, along with a tulip. (More on the tulips later) I wondered why you would go to Turkey to buy a baseball cap with “England” on it. I still wonder this.

The night before our departure I had made two solar filters, one for my camera and the other for the Astroscan. Both used Astrosolar film, which is best for this sort of thing, as well as cardboard and duct tape. The results looked incredibly crude and I was a bit skeptical of my handiwork, but on the day both filters worked splendidly.

We got a good view of the sun. We saw only three sunspots in the lower right quadrant, and a couple of flares near the pole. (Because the telescope image was inverted, these phenomena were actually at the top of the sun, assuming the sun can be said to have a top.) A small number of sunspots means a large magnetic field, so we were looking forward to a really big corona.

First contact was at 12:38 local time. If we had been down on the beach with the main group, Paul would have given us a very precise time reading, but since we were by ourselves it was pure chance that I happened to be looking through the Astroscan at the moment when the sun was first touched by the edge of the moon. After a moment of silent rejoicing, I announced this fact and reached for my camera to take a picture.

And so it went for over an hour. The moon slowly crept across the face of the sun. I took an occasional picture, ate my box lunch, chatted with Kathy and Cheryl and Debra. Occasionally Kathy would invite some folks over to look through the telescope or to use the telescope to project the eclipse on their shirts or other parts. The day remained sunny and warm. We kept looking out to sea to discover if we could see the shadow of the moon advancing across it, but we didn’t see anything of the sort until literally the last minute.

Wispy cirrus clouds formed in the sky— right around the sun, where I guess the air was cooler. This didn’t prevent us from getting a good view of the solar disk, but it probably meant we wouldn’t see as much corona as we would have otherwise.

I’d been told that it is possible to see the corona before totality, so I tried blotting out the sun with my lens cover while I squinted skyward, but I couldn’t tell whether the blazing white object I saw was the corona or merely glare. I suspect the latter.

When the sun was down to a sliver the world turned eerie. A weird sort of half-twilight descended and the air grew chill. Fitful half-breezes gusted from every corner of the compass. Venus blazed bright in the sky. You could see a nebulous area of darkness rushing toward us over the sea, like something in a horror film.

Something was very clearly going wrong with the foundations of the universe. If I were a primitive person, I would have been scared witless. I must be more primitive than I thought, because I could feel my heart racing.

There were a number of things I could have done, observation-wise. I could have looked for shadow-bands, a kind of weird strobe-light effect you can see on the ground just before totality, but I was so excited that I forgot. (I don’t think there were any to see. Nobody else reported them.)

And then the sun was gone, eaten by this huge black monster. The corona glowed around a bottomless hole in the sky. Cheers roared up from a neighboring hotel. (Our hotel had classical music; theirs had drunken frat boys.)

One of the exotic things about a solar eclipse is that, drunken cheers aside, it takes place in silence. It’s so cosmic that you expect a sound track. Not a Native American flute, either, but the furious howl of the moon-monster as it devours the solar disk, or maybe some kind of bizarre choral piece by Györgi Ligeti.

I took off the solar filter and began methodically taking pictures. Snap, move one shutter speed setting, snap. Kathy was yelling at me to look through the telescope. I told her I was busy right now. Snap, move one shutter speed, snap. Kathy kept yelling. I told her to let Cheryl and Debra look, fer chrissake. Snap, snap.

I was going to take all the pictures I could right at the beginning, then reserve the rest of the three minutes, forty seconds for gawking. The best of the snaps can be seen online. All the pictures here show the corona as far smaller, and with far less detail, than I could see with the naked eye.

Eventually I’d run down all the shutter speeds, and took my place at the Astroscan, where the sun and corona leaped straight onto my retina. The details of the corona were far more visible.

The corona isn’t just a ball of faint light surrounding the sun. It has texture to it, bands of streamers woven in complex patterns. You see it in three dimensions, with structures reaching toward you and other structures leaning away. It’s a pearly ivory color with a slight greenish tinge, and other colors have been reported as well. I’ve found some good pictures of the sun’s corona here, here, and here, taken with much better equipment than I had available.

The corona was smaller than that of the 1998 eclipse we’d watched from Curaçao, a disappointment because, given the absence of sunspots, we’d expected something bigger. Probably the high wisps of cirrus had something to do with this.

One of the things I could have done at this point was look not at the sun or the corona but at the moon. The moon isn’t actually dark during an eclipse, because it receives a good deal of reflected light from the Earth. People have reported that the moon turns red during an eclipse, and has flashes of other color.

I was so carried away that it never occurred to me to look at the moon at all.

I looked around instead. Standing in the center of the moon’s shadow, we could see a red sunrise completely surrounding us, all 360 degrees.

The eclipse lasted something like three minutes, forty seconds. Down on the beach Paul was shouting out a countdown, but up on our terrace I had no idea how much time had passed. I could think of nothing more to do than repeat everything I’d already done. I looked around. I looked through the telescope. I took more snaps. I gaped in awe.

The western sunrise rushed toward us over the sea. I grabbed my camera. Bailey’s Beads appeared on the edge of the moon, where the sun shone through deep valleys in the lunar mountains. I managed by luck to snap a gorgeous diamond ring formation, then one with another, bigger diamond before the sun blazed out fully and blinded me.

It was 1:59 pm. We put on our solar filters once more and bade farewell to the eclipse.

It’s an anticlimax between third and fourth contact, as the sun is slowly uncovered. As the day brightened, we took last looks at everything and then picked up our stuff and carried it back to our room. Along the way I noticed that the leaves on the trees were casting crescent-shaped shadows, reflecting the shape of the sun shining through them.

What to do with the rest of the afternoon? We longed to see the Antalya Archaeological Museum, which is one of the great archaeological museums of the world. Among other things, it contains many of the statues of gods and heroes from the huge courtyard built in Perge by the Plancia Magna mentioned in our last installment. It would normally have been on our tour, but instead the day reserved for Antalya was taken for the eclipse.

I checked with the concierge, and found out that the while our hotel was 50km east of Antalya, the museum was several kilometers on the other side of the city. A cab ride would cost us 50 Euros each way. It would have taken over an hour to get there, and an hour to return. Reluctantly we decided that even if we spent the money, we wouldn’t have enough time in the museum to see everything we wanted.

For the rest of the afternoon we relaxed. I went to the open-air bar, drank a couple shots of raki, and brought my diary and expense log up to date. I wrote postcards. I considered taking a Turkish bath, and didn’t.

In the lobby of the hotel was a brightly-colored macaw, who every I time I passed I tried to teach to say “Achtung!”, which I figured would startle the German tourists as they walked past. To my astonishment I succeeded— the one time in my life I’ve taught a talking animal to say anything at all. The bird would stare at me in furious concentration, work its tongue and beak around as it tried to puzzle out the unfamiliar sound, and then say “Achtung!” very clearly, but unfortunately not loudly at all. Unless you were right there, you couldn’t hear it.

Another few days, and I’d have had the bird barking the word out like a proper German feldwebel.

The evening featured a raucous celebratory dinner, including some pictures of the eclipse and a video by Ken Lum, one of our group who seemed to own more photographic gear than a man who has any right to possess. Since his video also had audio, we could hear the shouting, howling, and wisecracks of the folks who had watched the eclipse from our beach.

Afterwards, the hotel itself put on a show for us, by way of thanking us for our custom. It started with some Russian acrobats who were truly fine and imaginative, and then went on to a band who started their set by playing Frank Sinatra’s “Something Stupid,” and then went on to address us in German. Apparently nobody had told them who we were. People deserted in droves. I think the band played the last of their set to a room empty except for busboys picking up dishes.

(Kathy, by the way, wants to take up a collection to buy the poor Turks some more modern pop music.)

The climax of the entertainment was a belly dancer, but by the time she appeared she had no audience. I heard she performed in the lobby for anyone who happened to be there, but by that time Kathy and I were in bed. We had a very early call the next day.

Coming next: Tomb of a Poet

Patricia Mathews May 24, 2006 at 1:50 pm

Wow. Impressive.

As for the guys with the sound tracks, you don’t expect better of drunken frat boys, but I get atwinge in the pit of my stomach whenever I read about witches and pagans showing poor public manners. Rest assured the New Mexico community is much better behaved.

dubjay May 24, 2006 at 7:03 pm

I freely admit that I had no idea what the various groups at Side were actually planning, or what they actually did. They may have been perfectly well-behaved. I just heard the phrase “neo-pagan ceremonies” and took no chances.

Foxessa May 24, 2006 at 7:41 pm

Your experience sounds rather more comfortable than those who bused and trekked the Libyan desert to watch the eclipse.

Love, C.

dubjay May 25, 2006 at 7:37 pm

We considered doing the Libyan thing. Magna Leptis is one of the best-preserved Roman sites anywhere, and nobody’s seen it for thirty years.

But we haven’t seen the Pyramids yet, either. For this trip, it was either Egypt or Turkey, and we opted for Turkey.

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