Meet the 'shadow lovers:' three men who have each witnessed more total eclipses than anyone

Chasing the phenomenon has been a decades-long adventure. But on the eve of the latest, COVID-19 has cast its own shadow.

Published 11 Dec 2020, 20:39 GMT
The moon moves between the Earth and the sun: 21 August, 2017, Richland, South Carolina. This day saw a total ...

The moon moves between the Earth and the sun: 21 August, 2017, Richland, South Carolina. This day saw a total eclipse move across a narrow strip of the United States – with a partial eclipse visible in many other countries. 

Photograph by DOD Photo / Alamy

At lunchtime on December 14th, the people in the Chilean town of Villarrica will be cast into darkness. Looking west, they will see a grey shadow rolling in from the direction of the Pacific Ocean. As our moon eclipses the sun, blocking out its light, the temperature will drop, birds will start roosting, cicadas will chirrup, and stars will appear bright in the midday sky.

Then the path of the eclipse – or path of totality, as it’s known – will continue eastwards, crossing the Andes into Argentina, tracing a broad line across Northern Patagonia and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Among the many foreigners hoping to witness this astronomical event are American trio Glenn Schneider, Jay Pasachoff and John Beattie. Each man individually holds the equal world record for observing more total solar eclipses than any other human being in history: an impressive 35 each. Pandemic travel restrictions have impinged on their plans for a 36th, however.

65-year-old Schneider (an astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory) and 77-year-old Pasachoff (professor of astronomy at Williams College, in Massachusetts, and head of a working group on solar eclipses at the International Astronomical Union) are both unable to travel. At the time of writing, only Beattie (a proofreader from New York, in his early 70s) was intending to visit.

Observers in Siak, Riau, Indonesia watch the 2019 total eclipse through specially filtered glasses. Eclipses take on different resonances, from spiritual experiences to scientific fascinations.  

Photograph by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

Adventures of the umbraphiles

These three astronomers  – all originally from New York City – are known as eclipse-chasers, or umbraphiles (shadow-lovers). In pursuit of their passion, they have dedicated much of their spare time and money travelling to locations within the path of totality – exotic destinations such as Easter Island, Siberia, the Zambezi River, Java, Kenya, China’s Hubei province, the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic and the Antarctic. In last-minute scrambles to find cloud-free viewing spots, they have had to hire local drivers, charter aeroplanes, embark on boat trips, or search desperately for high ground. While Pasachoff funds his trips through research grants, Schneider and Beattie often have to pay for their own passage.

Villarrica, in Chile, is set to be the dramatic location the path of totality for an eclipse on 14th December, 2020.

Photograph by Panther Media GmbH / Alamy

A solar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Moon and Earth align – a phenomenon known as syzygy. There are four types: a total solar eclipse, when the Moon completely occludes the Sun, is by far the most dramatic; a partial solar eclipse is when the Moon passes in front of the Sun, but off centre so that only part of the Sun’s disc is obscured; an annular solar eclipse is when the Moon passes dead centre in front of the Sun but appears too small to fully occlude its disc (because the Moon’s orbit is elliptical); and a hybrid solar eclipse is a combination of a total and an annular eclipse.

Total solar eclipses are rare, occurring somewhere on our planet only once every 16 months or so. The last total eclipse to pass across the UK was in August 1999, over Cornwall and Devon. The next won't arrive on these shores until September 2090.

In Madras, Oregon, people watch the total eclipse in 2017. 

Photograph by Minden Pictures / Alamy

The problem of size

Unfortunately, our nation is so compact (approximately one two thousandth of the planet’s surface area), that it is poorly served by total eclipses. People living in countries which span multiple degrees of latitude have a far greater chance of witnessing them. Chile, which stretches from well inside the tropics, almost as far down as the Antarctic Circle, is a great example. By the end of this century alone, this South American nation will have had seven total eclipses and nine annular eclipses crossing its territory.

Glenn Schneider. Remarkably equal with his fellow observers, he has racked up 35 total eclipses.  

Of course, rarity adds value, and anyone who has witnessed a total solar eclipse will tell you what an electrifying, emotional spectacle it can be. First there is the lunar shadow which rolls in rapidly (normally from the west), imposing nighttime in the middle of the day. Then there is the beauty of the corona, as the Moon occludes the bright disk of the Sun. There is the Baily’s beads effect, when sunlight shines through the valleys on the edge of the Moon. And, at the start and end of totality, there is the diamond ring effect, when the last bit of sunlight disappears and then later reappears like a sparkling diamond from behind the edge of the Moon.

“I stood there with my binoculars dangling around my neck, looking at that hole in the sky. I couldn't move. I didn't take a single photo. I was mesmerised.”

Glenn Schneider

For first-time observers, the effects can be overwhelming. Some people are stunned into silence, some scream, some cheer, some even burst into tears.

“You really feel your place in the universe,” Schneider tells National Geographic UK. “It's a connection to celestial mechanics in a very visceral way. It connects the scale of human experience to celestial experience. It ties into people’s base emotions.”

A trick of light and space

The reason we are able to experience total solar eclipses is all down to a wonderful astronomical quirk. The Sun’s diameter is 400 times larger than the Moon’s and, coincidentally, the Sun is, on average, 400 times further away from the Earth than the Moon. This makes both bodies appear the same size in the sky, so that, during a total solar eclipse, the Moon overlays the Sun perfectly.

It’s an equally wonderful quirk that there are intelligent beings alive to observe eclipses. Every year, the Moon’s orbit pulls away from the Earth by 3.78 cm so that, hundreds of millions of years from now, it will be too far away to block out the Sun. Right now, in the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history, cosmic conditions are perfect.

Jay Pasachoff at the Palomar observatory, near San Diego. His first total eclipse, in 1959, was viewed from an aircraft chartered by his astronomy professor. 

Photograph by Jay Pasachoff

Pasachoff will never forget his first total eclipse. As a freshman astronomy student at Harvard University, he was studying under an eclipse expert called Professor Donald Menzel. “There happened to be a total solar eclipse a couple of years after school started, on October 12, 1959,” he tells National Geographic UK. “Professor Menzel borrowed a DC3 to fly out of Boston to watch it out the side windows. Eleven of our freshman seminar group were on board. The effect was so dazzling that I was hooked.” Pasachoff once described eclipse-watching as “like going to the seventh game of the World Series with the score tied in the ninth inning.”

Schneider lost his eclipse virginity 11 years later, in 1970. He was a schoolboy in New York City at the time, and decided to head down to North Carolina for the perfect vantage point. Having done his research, he knew he would have only two minutes and 54 seconds to observe the phenomenon. In advance, he dutifully rehearsed how he was going to spectate, using binoculars, telescopes and cameras.   

“As the Moon’s shadow approached, and just before totality, I was thunderstruck,” he remembers. “It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen: a wall of darkness coming across and enveloping us; a very high-contrast umbra; the advent of second contact and the diamond ring. It was all unbelievable. I stood there with my binoculars dangling around my neck, looking at that hole in the sky. I couldn't move. I didn't take a single photo. I was mesmerised. It froze me right to the spot, and changed my perception of what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

A multiple exposure shot at five minute intervals showing the moon moving into and out of total eclipse above Moose River, Ontario, in 1963. Were an aircraft to track the movement of the shadow, it would be following the path of totality – and it's a common pursuit amongst serious 'umbraphiles.'

Photograph by Laird S. Brown/National Geographic Creative

Since then, Schneider has dedicated much of his spare time to what he admits is “an umbraphillic obsession”. “It’s not only an addiction, but an affliction, and a way of life,” he explains.

One of his most memorable experiences was in 2002, in the Australian outback, when he planted himself near the very end of the path of totality, where the darkness rose up into the sky rather than across the surface of the Earth. “As totality was ending, we looked straight up and saw this elongated oval of darkness getting smaller and smaller, lifting back up into space,” he remembers. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”

1986 proved to be an exceptional eclipse, too. This time Schneider and four other umbraphiles hired a Cessna jet and pursued a hybrid eclipse through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. They were lucky to intercept it since this was in the days before GPS. “It was all over so quickly, if you’d sneezed, you would have missed it.”

In 2013, he travelled with colleagues to northern Kenya, to the remote region around Lake Turkana. Preparing themselves for totality, they noticed a “biblical sandstorm” on the horizon. Desperate not to miss the eclipse, they all leapt on board two chartered aeroplanes, flying through and then above the storm for a perfect view.

Solar Eclipse 101

Last year’s eclipse in the Southern Pacific was also observed through an aeroplane window. Schneider worked with a specialist travel agency to devise a flight plan for a chartered Boeing 787 to intercept the eclipse at precisely the right moment. On July 2nd, as part of a group of paying customers, he took off from Easter Island, heading north. By following the path of totality in a speeding jet, they were able to extend the eclipse to eight and a half minutes – far longer than if they had been stationary on the ground. “That option was just too appealing,” says Schneider, whose computations earned him a free seat on the plane.

While he did carry out an experiment to measure the Sun’s coronal emissions, his motivation was far more aesthetical than scientific – as it always is, he stresses. For Pasachoff, however, eclipses are a key component of his everyday work as an astronomer. Despite being unable to make it to Chile on December 14th, he is collaborating with scientists who will be there, conducting various experiments. He is understandably dismayed at not being able to attend in person.

“This will be the first total solar eclipse I have missed since 1976,” he says. “I still hope that I can get some scientific results.”

When it became clear to Schneider he couldn't travel to Chile either, he says he felt “devastated at the horrible realisation”.

Should Beattie make it, however, he will clock up 36 total solar eclipses, overtaking Schneider and Pasachoff’s current tally. Nevertheless, Schneider stresses that umbraphilia is a science, not a sport. “None of us do this for record keeping or as competitive sport,” he says. “That's not what this is about.”

He insists there’s no rivalry between the three men. “A fraternity,” is how he describes them. “We’re all on the same team.”

Besides, it’s likely these three astronomers will reunite in just under a year’s time. On December 4th 2021, they and other umbraphiles will board a chartered passenger jet in the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas before intercepting a total solar eclipse just after sunrise, 12,000 metres above the South Atlantic Ocean, in between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

“From our aircraft, totality will be seen with the totally-eclipsed Sun very low above the terrestrial horizon,” says Schneider who is calculating the flight plan. “The long, dark, conical umbral shadow will sweep over our aircraft with its axis tangent to the surface of the Earth. This will be a truly amazing sight to behold.”

 

Dominic Bliss is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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