I’m not sure there is anything much more powerful and awe-inspiring than being confronted with the reality of how utterly insignificant and powerless we truly are.
The last time there was a major eclipse in the UK was in August 1999. I had been back in Northampton for a month after finishing college, and I had just started work in the same place I am actually back working at now. A big group of us stood outside the front of the building, and we slowly fell into an awed hush as the light around us dimmed into an orangey purple colour. An eerie silence crept through the crowd; there was a night-time quiet amongst all of the birds and animals that makes up the usual background noise of life that you simply don’t notice until it’s unexpectedly absent.
We all knew what was happening, WHY it was happening, and that it would go away again soon…but it was SCARY. For a short period of time, it was immediately apparent how vulnerable we all are to things that we absolutely have no control over. It genuinely felt like being in a Sci-Fi movie. It is completely understandable why primitive peoples created gods to explain phenomena like this, because even now it evokes primal fear and a sense of utter powerlessness.
That was 16 years ago and needless to say, I have been ridiculously excited in the lead up to the eclipse that happened today, because I like Science, and also creepy shit.
I had already decided that I wasn’t going to be doing any work between 9am and 10am; I was going to get a coffee, take my pin-hole camera, and park myself outside until everything was over. I had no intentions of missing a moment.
Before any of that happened, I needed to make a pin-hole camera in the first place. I’ve never made one before, but I got the general idea. I took a cardboard box, sealed off gaps in one end with masking tape, and used a big safety pin to poke a hole in one side. I tested it out using the LED bulbs in my living room lights as substitute suns, and it worked like a dream. I did adapt the design a bit – by ‘adapt the design’ I mean ‘I cut a chunk out of the front to allow my face to get a bit closer’.
So, the Science bit of this, and forgive me if I’m teaching you to suck eggs here; the box is like your eye, the pin-hole is like your iris, and the inside wall of the back of the box is like your retina. It all does the same job, although my interpretation is a bit fucking clumsy at best. The image of the object that is actually emitting the light passes through the pinhole, and appears upside down on the inside wall of the box; it does the same thing on your retina, it’s just your brain has learned to flip the image to make it make sense.
So, I had my pin-hole camera, I knew that it worked with a light bulb – all I needed then was a nice clear day to observe the eclipse!
I got in my car at 08:24 to head to work, and the sky was disappointingly cloudy…but not a lot of lumpy clouds. It was mostly like a fog, but washed across the sky, and as I got closer to work, it started to glow with the light of the sun behind it. Shadows started to stretch out underneath the cars on the road in front of me, and I began to get a little bit more excited about actually being able to witness the solar spectacle.
I headed to the top of the multi-storey car park – being a Friday when people generally take a day’s holiday, I got my pick of spaces, and headed up as high as I could get.
The light was already changing, emphasising blues and reds.
It was this point that I realised that in my excitement, I had forgotten my access badge, which also had my drawer keys attached – the collective result being that I had to walk around to the other side of the building to beg forgiveness from the security staff, and also that I had to queue for coffee in the shop, rather than using my own stash.
Net impact; I was having a typically constrained British strop by the time I got to my desk to set my laptop up, before then heading back out and start watching. Drama aside, by 09:04am, I was back at my car and I had my observation station set up.
By 09:13am, the cloud cover had burned out enough that I was seeing bright and recognisable pictures of the emerging eclipse. Two minutes later, the birdsong around me noticeably changed.
The clouds were moving in waves of variable density past the sun, so the image inside my viewer was pulsing in and out of focus, but at 09:22am, the picture sharpened up again to show a noticeable difference in the encroachment of the Moon across the surface of the Sun and my belly went fizzy with excitement.
The temperature was really dropping. The last eclipse I witnessed was in August, so the base temperature was significantly higher, but this morning it was so cold that my breath was fogging up the air around me and my fingers were going numb.
The Moon was steadily progressing across the front of the Sun, and by 09:33am, the light was so dull that I could no longer see anything through my pin-hole camera. I turned around…and there it was. A Cheshire Cat smile in the sky, layered behind roiling thicknesses of cloud.
It stopped being a projection on a piece of cardboard, and hit me in the chest with the full force of reality. I was looking at the ACTUAL sun. I could see the ACTUAL moon rolling across in front of it. I had a clear line of sight across space, and the sheer distance and size of the bodies involved hit me like a solid weight.
I have many, many examples from TV and film to fuel my imagination, and my brain took everything it had at its disposal and zoomed in across space like the opening credits to a sci-fi series. I felt genuinely overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I was witnessing…and by comparison, the insignificance of the petty squabbles and turmoils of human life.
We need this shit more often.