100 Interesting Things: #1 Eclipses

Eclipses come in different kinds. Sometimes the moon appears bigger than the sun and it’s called a total eclipse, and sometimes it appears smaller and then it ain’t quite so spectacular. That’s an annular eclipse. Then there’s another kind when the total part of the shadow of the moon on the earth misses and the rest of the shadow grazes the earth causing a partial eclipse. Other important words are Umbra and Penumbra. Umbra is the total part of the shadow and penumbra is the partial part.

Eclipses are special because they remind us that the Universe is in charge and not the stock market. They tell us that there is something that exists more important than Tom Cruise‘s pants.

One of my favourite usages of an Eclipse as a narrative device is in Herge’s “Prisoners of the Sun“. Tintin, Calculus and Haddock are in deep shit because they have been captured by an Inca tribe. As a quirky bonus they are allowed to choose the exact date and time of their execution. Tintin happens to learn of a total eclipse due to pass over them within weeks and chooses that particular moment. When the three of them are tied to their stakes on which they will be burned to death, Tintin starts pretending he is summoning the Gods to punish the Incas. They fall for his game and release them immediately thinking Tintin’s some kind of god.

The last total eclipse to pass over England was on August 11th 1999. I was in Cardiff at the time and we only got about 80% of the eclipse. It was a really strange light, like nothing else. It was not like dawn or dusk because it was too bright somehow because the sun was still shining, just very weakly. Neither was it like cloudiness, because then the light is bounced around by the cloud giving a much softer, though equally dim effect. I can only describe it as though someone had switched the sun for an eco-sun with a much lower wattage. It was quite an unpleasant dimness, a dimness you might expect from a sun millions of years in the future when it’s on its last legs.


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