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Sight conjures up 'awe and the big question about life itself' In ancient times the world would freeze in terror at the sight of the eclipse which yesterday we clamoured to enjoy. DARREN DEVINE traces the history of the phenomenon from unexplained mystery to mainstay of international tourism.


AS an eerie darkness spread across a battlefield in Asia Minor in 585BC the warring tribes laid down their arms at the sight of the sun's disappearance.

Minds focused on battles with earthly rivals were turned from enmity by a vast heavenly phenomenon which threw their trifling squabble into sharp relief.

For thousands of years the kind of eclipse witnessed most dramatically in Sweden yesterday has held the same awe-inspiring power over man which saw the frenzied orgy of knifing, hacking and bludgeoning between the Lydians and Medes end in a truce.

To the Chinese it was a sign that the sun, the source of all life on earth, had been swallowed by a dragon which must be slain to prevent the end of the world.

China's ancient astronomers were tasked with predicting when the dragon would arrive to swallow the sun - a time dominated by rituals of drums and chanting.

The emperor depended on the advance notice in order to send his archers to scare off the dreaded sun-swallowing creature. Legend suggests that when the astronomers Hi and Ho knew an eclipse was due in 2134 BC, but were too drunk to warn the emperor of its arrival, they were beheaded for their failure.

But all early cultures employed similar myths to account for the baffling event - the Indians and Indonesians, like the Chinese, explained it as the work of a hungry dragon.

The Vietnamese blamed a giant frog for swallowing the sun, in parts of Latin America local legend centred upon a jaguar and the Siberians believed a vampire feasted on the orb.

Secretary of the Abergavenny Astronomical Society Jonathan Powell said that, though science has now stripped the eclipse of its myth-making powers, the event continues to enthral and fascinate.

Mr Powell, who suggested yesterday's partial solar eclipse was obscured by cloud cover around most of Wales and the UK, said: "An eclipse for some has become almost like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"It's rather like seeing the Northern Lights - not many people have seen them and not many people have seen a solar eclipse.

"I would have said it's on the list of the 20 things you must do before you die.

"I was talking to a chap back in 1986 who saw Halley's Comet then and the last time it was around in 1911. He was very lucky to see the return of a comet and it was special because it is a fragment of the solar system. And to see a partial eclipse rising above the horizon is a very unusual sight.

"It represents the awe and fascination of the solar system and the universe and, of course, the big question about life itself.

"There's also the question of how it is that you've got a vast body like the sun and the much smaller moon and earth matching perfectly in space and real time. It's one of these things you've got to look at to catch the majesty."

Mr Powell described a nearcomplete solar eclipse he witnessed from Tredegar in 1999 as "awesome".

He said: "They say that during total eclipses wildlife goes very quiet and birds stop tweeting.

"You could watch this shadow passing up through the valley towards Tredegar as the eclipse took place.

"It went very cold and awesomely and weirdly dark. For the duration of a couple of minutes it was quite bizarre and quite surreal.

"You could see why in the past it brought civilisations to a complete halt, because it was such a bizarre experience."

Beyond the myths of the past eclipses have been linked to a number of turning points in history.

A lunar eclipse that saw a rising full moon obscured over a Constantinople under attack by the Turks in May of 1453 was regarded as an ill-omen which brought about an unshakeable despair.

Within a few days Constantinople had fallen, bringing about the collapse of the Roman Empire of Orient after 1,130 years.

During his fifth expedition in Jamaica, Columbus won favour and respect among Indians by calling on his Christian God to send a warning from the heavens.

After the moon was eclipsed on February 29, 1504, Columbus was able to demand better food and protection for his troops so they could survive until his next ship arrived.

But what appeared to the Indians as the random act of some mysterious omnipotent force can today be predicted by scientists with astonishing accuracy - within less than a second.

The advance of science has meant companies like US firm Twilight Tours can cater for those determined to see the total solar eclipses that come around once every 18 months.

Some of the most hardcore eclipse devotees will spend tens of thousands of dollars journeying to the remotest of places to observe the event.

The last total solar eclipse was on Easter Island, Polynesia, in July last year.

Then some tour operators negotiated exclusive deals which saw them book entire islands in the path of the eclipse when the moon's shadow moves across the earth at more than 2,000mph.

Last summer reports suggested some tourists were spending $29,700 each for a six-night luxury eclipse cruise around the Tahitian islands, with private lectures from top US astronomers. Twenty-three of the most ardent eclipse chasers even chartered a specially-adapted A319 Airbus to track the event.

Flying in the same direction of the eclipse at almost 500mph, the tourists, who paid up to $9,000, were able to extend the period of "totality" (when the sun's light is completely blocked by the moon) from almost five minutes to nearly 10.

Eclipse tourism can be traced back almost four decades to 1972 when hundreds boarded a Greek cruise ship to witness an event off Nova Scotia.

In Wales Brian Stokes and wife Roma journeyed to St Gilgen, Austria, in 1999, to take in the total eclipse.

A retired resident engineer with BP, Mr Stokes still recalls the spectacular sun flares shooting out from behind the edge of the darkened moon.

Mr Stokes, 78, who chairs Swansea's Astronomical Society, said: "It was an organised trip in the sense that my wife and I and our friends had visited there before and I was aware that the path of totality was passing over there.

"There's still a magic to seeing it and witnessing the event taking place.

"During the eclipse there's a vivid image of the roundness of the moon. We all know about how it happens, but the mystery is still with us.

"That brief few seconds when we're in total darkness and we see the flares is magical."

Aside from Sweden, people in the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and central Asia were in the best position to enjoy yesterday's eclipse.

In the UK the dramatic sight of the moon passing between the sun and the earth could be witnessed in parts of East Anglia and the south coast of England.

But among those thwarted by the overcast conditions yesterday was Cardiff University professor Derek Ward-Thompson.

The professor of astrophysics said he ended up seeing "not a sausage" because of the cloud cover.

In terms of the history of the events, the professor said, though the masses may have been mystified by eclipses, the leading thinkers of the ancient civilisations had a much better grasp of the phenomena.

By the time of the Greeks and the Romans it was understood that eclipses came in groups - in addition to yesterday's, there are two more this year.

He said: "The ancient Chinese were very good at predicting eclipses and knew when they were coming, while the ancient Mesopotamians had detailed eclipse records.

"Certainly by the time of the Greeks and the Romans they knew all about eclipses and how they come in specific groups and so on.

"It was all tied up with religions - sun-worshipping religions etc - but they had a pretty good idea of how it happened.

"Obviously at that point there was the earth-centred view of the universe - that the sun went around the earth.

"But if you take that as your reference point they did quite a good job of explaining how the orbits were taking place."

THE SCIENCE OF ECLIPSES WITH no light of its own, the moon shines through sunlight reflected off its surface.

As it moves around the earth the changing alignment of the moon in relation to the sun means it goes through several phases.

These are the new moon, new crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full moon, waning gibbous, last quarter and old crescent before the return of the new moon.

A new moon cannot be seen from earth because the illuminated part of its surface is pointing away from our planet.

The remaining phases can be seen throughout its 29.5-day cycle.

Though the new moon is invisible to us, a solar eclipse can only occur in this phase when the satellite passes between us and the sun.

While we get a new moon around once every 29.5 days this does not produce an eclipse once a month because the moon's orbit of the earth is tilted 5, compared to the earth's orbit of the sun.

As a result the moon's shadow usually passes above or below the planet, but twice a year the alignment matches so that some part of the satellite's shadow hits the earth's surface and an eclipse can be viewed.

The moon's shadow has two parts - a faint outer one known as the penumbra producing partial eclipses and a darker shadow, or umbra, resulting in a total eclipse once every 18 months or so.

Sometimes the moon is too small to entirely cover the sun because its orbit of the earth is oval or elliptically shaped.

As a result its distance from the earth varies between 221,000 miles and 252,000 miles.

And when the moon is on the near side of the orbit it looks larger than the sun and can produce a total solar eclipse. But on the far side it can't completely cover the sun, resulting in an annular eclipse when the edges of the orb are still visible.

As opposed to these solar events, lunar eclipses occur when the moon passes behind the earth and is shielded from the sun's light.

The partial solar eclipse as snow-covered crosses and domes of St Basil's Cathedral are seen in Moscow Seen through clouds over the church tower in Breclav, South Moravia Venezuelan tourists watch the eclipse in front of the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt Seen through the fog in Vienna, Austria Members of the Newcastle Astronomical Society with telescopes at St Mary's Lighthouse in Whitley Bay as overcast skies prevented a view of a solar eclipse.

The eclipse as seen from Gaza city


An employee of the Stefanik Observatory in Prague uses a projection shield to show the partial solar eclipse visible in the Czech capital yesterday
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 5, 2011
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