(Pic by Luc Viatour / Wiki commons)
A TOTAL eclipse of the sun cast a long shadow on Earth yesterday, 22 July 2009. Said to be the longest total solar eclipse in the 21st century, the shadow moved along a narrow corridor across parts of the Asia Pacific.
The eclipse was partially perceivable in the northern region of Malaysia, between 8:23am and 9:48am yesterday. However, with the return of hazy days, the overcast in some parts and Malaysia being in the penumbra (outer shadow) of the eclipse, it would’ve been no surprise that many people went about their morning without realising that a rare phenomenon had occurred.
In the past, if you missed it, well, tough. But these days, those who missed the chance to witness such a phenomenon live, because of the weather, geographical location or time difference, can still make up for it in the virtual world. There are plenty of opportunities to view the “rerun” on the internet, thanks to the multitude of astronomy fans and institutions out there.
Diagram of eclipse (not to scale)
(Image by Fastfission / Wiki commons)A quick revision on elementary science and astronomy for the benefit of the uninitiated: a solar eclipse occurs when the moon — in a new moon phase, when it is closest to the sun — moves between the sun and the Earth. During this period, the moon blocks out the sun and casts a dark inner shadow or umbra on parts of the Earth, which would experience a total eclipse of the sun. There is a partial eclipse in the penumbra, the area surrounding the umbra.
For the solar eclipse yesterday, the path of totality — where the sun was totally blocked out — appeared near Surat, India, and moved northeast across the subcontinent and parts of Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. The shadow then moved across China to Shanghai before curving southeast across Japan and the Pacific Islands.
According to calculations by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in the US, the shadow travelled about 259km over six minutes and 39 seconds. Such information and related images are easily available on Nasa’s website on eclipses, and webpage on the rare total solar eclipse yesterday, put up by its project and website manager, Fred Espenak.
The larger universe
So what’s the big deal about a solar eclipse? To me, it is an astronomical spectacle that never fails to put me in my humble place, a reminder of the larger universe that we live in.
I can still remember how, as a university student in the early 1990s, I often stood in awe, ignoring the biting cold of winter, to watch the haunting green glow of the aurora borealis float across the Canadian sky. I remember lying on a deckchair in Fraser’s Hill, away from the city lights, counting shooting stars during one of the Perseid meteor showers that are visible in Malaysia. And I remember marvelling at the many shooting stars seen on a regular night in the Klang Valley, when Peninsular Malaysia was covered in darkness during the huge power outage of 1996.
This year, incidentally, is the International Year of Astronomy. It’s initiated by the International Astronomical Union and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to help people across the globe “rediscover their place in the universe through the day- and night-time sky”.
One of its projects, 100 Hours of Astronomy, allowed internet users to log on and view the skies from remotely controlled telescopes in observatories in the US, Australia, Canada, Italy and Israel — for free. During the project from 2 to 5 April 2009, the participants could also take photos of what they saw, such as these images taken from the Bareket Observatory in Israel.
The International Year of Astronomy isn’t just about stargazing. The Dark Skies Awareness project, for example, tries to raise awareness on the adverse impacts of excess artificial lighting on our environment. To think that we could lose sight of a lot of good stuff around us in the glare of too much artificial lighting — literally and figuratively speaking.
So what’s the big deal again about the universe? Perhaps it gives us pause for thought, in case we don’t do that enough on our own.
Cindy Tham is reminded of a quote by Carl Sagan: “The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.”