Remember Omni? It was a wonderful, slick-paper magazine published and edited by Bob Guccione and his gorgeous wife, Kathy Keeton, and I just this minute realized that one of the reasons I liked it so much was that its basic editorial policy was pretty much identical with that of this blog: Its primary interests were science fiction and science, with excursions into anything else that attracted the attention of its editor — in Omni’s case Guccione, in this blog’s case me. We knew that we had interests in common, too, and that’s why I did a lot of writing for Bob’s magazine throughout its all-too-short history.
Pretty much the whole editorial staff of Omni suffered from the same streaks of curiosity as Bob and Kathy and I did, which included not only the policy-makers but the ones that made it happen day by day — that is, Ben Bova, Bob Sheckley and maybe one or two others. And when, in the spring of 1991, we all became aware that one of those splendid sky shows that are called total eclipses of the sun was going to happen later that year it seemed to all of us that someone (preferably me) should cover the event for the magazine.
At the same time, I’ve been looking over some pieces I wrote on various subjects for various periodicals long ago, and wondering how many of you guys would like to see some of them reprinted here. So let’s find out. And to do that, here’s the eclipse of ’91 report, just as Omni published it nearly twenty years ago.
7:27 a.m., July 7, 1991. We’re ninety-six hours from the eclipse, but some of the dedicated eclipse fans are already out on the starboard railings of the S.S. Independence, squinting anxiously at the sun. It’s good and bright, right this minute. That’s pretty much the way you’d expect the sun to be here in these sunny Hawaiian waters, and the good news is that if the moon were going to slide in front of it today instead of four days from now you’d surely say that it was being eclipsed, all right. The bad news is that you wouldn’t be able to make out some of the fainter outer corona because there’s a thin, high fan of cirrus that starts at the horizon and spreads out over the eastern sky. It won’t keep you from getting a sunburn, but it’s just enough to fuzz out the fainter patches of coronal light. Maybe our luck will be better on July 11.
Maybe it won’t, too. Pacific skies are cloudy. I’ve flown over this ocean twice in the last few weeks, fourteen and a half hours from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and there was never a minute when I could look out my window and see no clouds in the sky at all. This morning there are fluffy little clumps of cumulus all over the eastern horizon. Twenty minutes later, while we’re eating our breakfast papaya and omelets on the fantail, a couple of clumps slide right over the sun, and that’s the kind of thing that can really spoil an eclipse for you.
Of course, on the Independence we’ll be a moving target. We should be able to dodge a few cumulus shadows. We’d better do it, too. There are 800 passengers who have booked passage on the Independence for the sole and simple reason that they want to see the sun go out. If they don’t see it with their own eyes some of them are going to be thirsting for blood.
Eight hundred on the Independence, 800 more on its sister ship, the Constitution, heaven knows how many others aiming to be out at sea somewhere in Hawaiian waters, on anything from a kayak to a catamaran, so they can get a good look at the Nineties’ best eclipse.
The great thing about the July 11, 1991, eclipse isn’t just that it’s a good long one (more than four minutes of totality right here; some other eclipses give you only seconds) but that its path sweeps right over a lot of places where people like to go anyway. Once it leaves the Big Island its next stop on land is the tourist heavens along the Mexican coast; so Baja California is standing room only, too. Other eclipses have been in far less desirable (or, for that matter, accessible) places. The sun and moon don’t consult human wishes when they meet. The moon’s shadow can strike the earth anywhere on its sunlit (or, of course, temporarily nonsunlit) face from the North Pole to Antarctica, and it has a distressing habit of doing so in the middle of an ocean, jungle, or Siberian wasteland. When scientists wanted to check out Albert Einstein’s relativity predictions by observing the May 29, 1919, eclipse they had to go to an island in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea to do it.
Still, some of our shipmates on the Independence might do the same thing. Some of them have seen three, five, as many as a dozen total eclipses in one part of the world or another, anywhere from New York’s Central Park (that was way back in 1925; l saw most of that one myself) to the China Sea. They all want more. They come in all shapes and sizes, our shipmates do. Over the week we’re at sea I met an Army chaplain, an advertising executive, a bundle of teachers at all levels, retired senior citizens from assorted walks of life, and — unusual for a cruise ship, but not really unexpected for this one — a great many working scientists: astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, computer people, and one or two who don’t exactly say what it is they’re working on, but whose home base is one or another research facility of the Department of Defense.
Then there are the kids. There are dozens of them. We happen to have lunch one day with a bright, well-mannered seven-year-old named Michael, traveling with his grandparents and doing his best to be good company, but clearly yearning to get it over with so he can get back to his Nintendo. The adults have other entertainment: movies, hula lessons, cards, contests, cabaret shows, and “us — astronaut Michael Collins, photographer George Keene, meteorologist Joe Rao, and generalist (which is to say, science-fiction writer) me. This will be Keene’s eleventh eclipse, and he has spectacular photographs of the last five to prove it. Joe Rao is the weatherman who will try to pick out the clearest piece of ocean for us on the morning of the eleventh, besides which he has seen and photographed several eclipses himself, while Mike Collins, on his way around the moon on Apollo 11 in 1969, saw all the personal eclipses a person might want. I am low man on this particular totem pole. All I have is the memory of that ancient 1925 event — and now Joe Rao breaks the news to me that I was several miles too far south and east at the time to see real totality, so that all I actually got was about a 99.99-percent partial. I never knew that. I was five years old. All I knew was that the sun went out.
We sail after sunset. When it’s full dark and we’re well away from the light pollution of Honolulu and Waikiki, Joe Rao takes a bunch of us out on deck to look at the constellations. Captain L. Richard Haugh has turned off all the lights the rules of the sea will allow, and the seeing is good.
This is a good place to see the southern constellations, and these are good ships for the purpose. Especially if you want to take pictures. They were originally built as Atlantic liners, with glamorous histories full of movie stars and other famous names, until the Hawaiian-American Line rebuilt them to cruise the islands. They’re steady photographic platforms because their propulsion is gentle steam rather than the sometimes jittery diesel motors.
7:28 a.m., July 8. We’re tied up at the port of Nawiliwili, Kauai, and if the eclipse were this morning we would be in good shape. The high cirrus veil is gone, and although there are some hefty cumuli around, we shouldn’t have much trouble dodging them.
There’s one unwelcome development. The trade winds blow steadily from the east at these latitudes, but for the last few days they’ve been taking some time off. Now, in the absence of the trades, dust from an erupting volcano in the Philippines has backtracked to our air. Besides burying Clark Field, Mount Pinatubo is making a faint, almost invisible, silvery sheen over the sky. Its dust has made some gorgeous sunsets, but sunsets we can get almost any day, and it’s not for picture-perfect landscapes but for the best possible view of the total eclipse that we’ve collectively traveled all these miles.
Mauna Loa isn’t the Big Island’s only towering mountain. The other is Mauna Kea, just a trifle taller and crowned with astronomical observatories.
That’s one of the other graces of this July 1991 eclipse: Its path of totality goes smack over one of the world’s largest aggregations of big astronomical telescopes, all huddled together on the peak of Mauna Kea. The reason so many institutions have put their biggest instruments there isn’t because the astronomers like sunbathing on the beaches — actually, much of the programming for the telescopes is done by remote control from as far away as the Greenwich Observatory in England — but because the seeing is so good. At two and a half miles up, the mirrors are placed well above much of the earth’s air and most of its obscuring water vapor — most of the time.
Still, I know from personal experience that even up there the seeing sometimes goes sour. I’m an observatories fan — everything from the Big Eye on Mount Palomar to the Bigger Dish of the radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico — and once when I was staying in Hilo I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a look. Against advice I rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle and made the climb. The advice had been good. It wasn’t a fun drive: narrow road snaking up the mountain, high winds that made the Jeepster slither back and forth on the loose gravel, with 500-foot drops and no guardrails, and a freezing, sleety tempest at the top. There wasn’t going to be any seeing that day. Not even sight-seeing; I turned right around and headed back down — and was lucky, I guess, because the next day the road washed out in the storm and a party of astronomers was stuck on the mountain for three days.
And they’re not doing much better now. The peak of Mauna Kea has been socked in for three days, and the solar astronomers are biting their nails. They really want to get this one in. It’s not their only chance, quite. Sooner or later there will be another total eclipse passing over their heads, but, on average, they come back to the same place only once every 350 years.
The Mauna Kea astronomers don’t really need a total eclipse to study, for instance, the sun’s corona. They do it all year round. They make their own eclipses, when they want them, by sliding a sun-sized opaque disc into the optics of their telescopes, and with the bright solar disc hidden the corona pops right out. But then sunglow lights the air around the image, and besides, the chance of comparing the natural eclipse with the coronagraph studies lets them check their simulation, and anyway they certainly want to see it. They’ve been setting up for this once-in-several-lifetimes photo opportunity on Mauna Kea for a long time, and the clouds that are now hovering around the top of the mountain have never been more unwelcome.
On deck a passenger asks me if we’re going to see Baily’s Beads. I couldn’t be more pleased, because I happen to know the answer to that one: It’s “No.” Baily’s Beads are the little necklace of bright points of light that you sometimes see around the eclipsed sun at totality. They come from the mountains on the rim of the moon; at an exact matchup the valleys between them let light from the sun’s rim through.
But we won’t see them this trip, because in the geometry of this eclipse the moon is a tad too close and thus too large. It will overlap the disc of the sun and thus cut off not only the Baily’s Beads but also a little of the inner corona, and the reasons for that are that the moon happens to be about as close to us (at 222,380 miles) as it ever gets, and also simply that it’s July.
The season of the year matters. The earth’s orbit around the sun isn’t a perfect circle; it’s stretched out a little to become an ellipse, and the sun isn’t exactly at the center of it. What makes things nice for the Northern Hemisphere is that when it’s our winter we’re at the part of the orbit that’s closer to the sun, and now in July we’re the farthest from it — 94,552,000 miles or so instead of the average distance of around 93,000,000. This makes our Northern seasons a little milder than those south of the equator, but it also makes the sun relatively a little smaller for this summer eclipse. Thus there will be the moon’s overlap — and no beads.
Carried away with this success, I go on to demonstrate some eclipse-viewing techniques. The ship’s owners have passed out cards containing patches of totally exposed photographic film to look through, which is one first-rate way to do it. The patches are about as nearly totally opaque as you can get — if you hold them over a light bulb, the bulb is invisible — but through them the sun is nicely visible, looking like a tiny orange hanging in space.
There are other ways of seeing the sun without risking your optic nerve, too, and I demonstrate some of them to my rapidly growing audience, which sometimes gets up to as many as four. I show them how to make a pinhole in a stiff sheet of paper and hold it over a white surface. The pinhole becomes a lens and the image on the surface is a perfect tiny replica of the sun. A larger image can be made by using binoculars or a small telescope — not looking through it, of course, because that’s a rapid way to achieve blindness, but letting the light from the eyepiece fall on a light-colored, preferably white surface. Or you can simply use a mirror to reflect an image onto a wall.
The display in the sky is worth looking at even before the eclipse itself begins, because this is an active period for the sun just now — many flares, many sunspots. With the naked eye I can’t see any sunspots on any of our mages, but through a 30-power telescope I find two big ones close together and a speckling of tinier ones, like grains of black pepper on a melon. With all this activity there should be some fine flares to see at totality.
At night George Keene gives a slide talk on the planets of the solar system and some of the more glamorous other telescopic objects. The cruise director has scheduled the talk for the ship’s 125-seat theater, yet there are 200 or 300 other passengers milling around who want to get in and can’t.
The thing is, the people on the Independence are not your usual passengers. Some of them are normal enough to just want the usual sea, sun, and shopping, and for them the eclipse is just a nice little added attraction, but the overwhelming majority are a different breed. They are among those lucky few who have discovered what a grand spectator sport science is. I understand them well, for I am of their blood. Like them, I try to chase science wherever I go, from marveling at fossils captured in the polished marble lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper to 2,200-year-old irrigation projects in China. I have found people like these among the geysers of Iceland and in Africa’s Rift Valley. Certainly they’re going to want to attend the lectures. Even if it means missing the ukulele lessons.
7:28 a.m., July 9. We steamed all night, and this morning we’re anchored off the Kona coast of the Big Island. If the eclipse were right now we might squeak by — the sun’s there, all right, but it isn’t perfect. It’s dimmed by some clouds over the mountain.
Of course, on the eleventh we won’t be this close to any mountains. We’ll be anything up to 50 miles offshore, but when I look off to where we’ll be on the western horizon what I see is a pretty discouragingly thick cloud bank. Forty-eight hours from now that one will be long gone . . but what will take its place? We’re not that far from the Intertropical Convergence Zone — the latitudes that sailing-ship masters used to call the doldrums — which is the place where the light and fickle winds go in all directions and can pop up a disturbance on short notice. So weather forecasting in these latitudes is tricky, and the captain pores over the meteorological reports with Joe Rao.
In their talks Keene and Rao are covering the skies and the weather, so when I do my first lecture I talk about the geology of the Hawaiian islands. It goes pretty well. and there were more people who showed up to hear it than w had seats for them in the ship’s theater The islands are definitely volcanic, but they’re a long way from the “ring of fire” that encircles the Pacific Ocean
The newest volcano is called Kilauea, and she has been spilling her lava into the sea for the last few years. Villages have been buried, tropical forests set afire, and still the flow oozes down.
From the ship the first thing we see is a spattering of ruddy lights along the slope of the mountain. At a distance they look like the campfires. They aren’t. They’re what volcanologists call “skylights.” As the lava tubes cocoon their red-hot contents on their way downhill, the tubes sometimes crack and bright, molten sludge peeps out. And then, when they reach the beaches and the surf, the lava streams explode into clouds of steam, brightly lit from the fiery lava, shooting off rockets of red-hot rock in all directions. You can see this fountaining firework display 20 miles away. There are three of these steam infernos working now, and as we get closer we can hear them, too: hissing and spattering, occasionally a distant gunshot sound. In a lifetime that has given me chances of close-up inspections of a number of volcanoes, I have never seen anything like it.
That’s not quite all. There’s another marvel nearby, though we can’t actually see it.
That one is the next Hawaiian island, already growing under the surface of the sea. It is nine miles offshore, which meand it was just about under our keel at one point, and no more than 5,000 feet away — but unfortunately, those 5,000 feet are all water, straight down. Its name is Loihi. It will be a while before this young volcano’s lava flows lift it above the surface, but then Loihi will be another island, and the Hawailans of that date will have to add a ninth bar to their state flag — about a million years from now.
7:28 a.m., July 10. Sun up, sun glorious; if the eclipse were today instead of tomorrow we’d have it in the bank.
Half an hour later, though, it’s not so glorious. The clouds move in, a drizzle starts, before long it’s pelting rain and if there’s a sun in the sky there is no way for anyone on this ship to find it. But hey, what did you expect? We’re docked in the harbor of the city of Hilo.
Hilo is sited on the wet eastern side of the Hawaiian mountains, where the trade winds get lifted up and cooled off, causing them to drop out all their accumulated burden of moisture before going on to the (usually) dry Kona coast on the west. What that ejected moisture then does is fall as rain on the umbrellas of the people of Hilo — 200 inches of it in an average year. It makes for wondrously lush tropical forests and gardens — but don’t forget that umbrella.
At midnight we’re under weigh to the offshore point where we hope to see the sun go out, and Joe Rao is pacing the deck. We’re already a long way from Hilo, but the clouds have followed us. The best he can count in the sky is three lousy stars, and those are visible only for minutes at a time. It’s worry time on the Independence. Joe spent an hour at the weather station at Lyman Field in Hilo while we were docked there, and the best hope the maps and the forecasters could offer him was a fingers-crossed “maybe.”
But there’s nothing to be done about it now, and we all go to bed — for five or six hours, max.
7:28 AM., July 11. This is it … and we lucked out! It’s gorgeous, it’s happening, and it’s clearly in sight! We’re at latitude 19 30′ 42″ North and longitude 156 32′ 54″ West, 33 and a hundred and a bit miles off the Kona coast. Clouds are all around us. The Intertropical Convergence Zone has done its number around us, and high cirrus and cirrostratus, mixed with Philippine volcano dust, are coming at us from one direction, while low, thick island clouds are heading toward us from another. But we’re in the clear! There’s a doughnut of clouds above, but the captain has put us in the hole of the doughnut, and through the hole in the doughnut we can clearly see the sun catch up with the moon and touch. When the first tiny bite appears at the top of the sun there’s a cheer from all concerned. The bite gets bigger and bigger . . . and then, pow!, at. 7:29:30 the bright disc of the sun is gone and the streamers of the corona leap out at us. ‘ We have totality. There’s another cheer at that, of course. That’s what this trip is all about, and it’s worth everything it cost.- At the top of the sun there’s a spot of ruby-laser light, where one immense red prominence ten times the size of the earth has leaped out and coiled back on itself to fall back to the sun’s surface. It shows up again at the bottom of the sun’s disk. A bit later another two bright prominences appear at the sides of the disc — fortunate places for them to be, because if they’d been at the sun’s north or south poles, bearing in mind our right angle view from the earth’s surface, they would have been hidden by the enlarged lunar disc and we might have seen no prominences at all. Photographs don’t do it. Photographs can’t show the emitted light from the corona, and most of all, photographs don’t show the wide, dark sky surrounding the fantastic eclipsed sun. .If I’d seen it without previous knowledge I’d certainly have taken it for a UFO, a Disneyland special effect, or a miracle. In fact, what it is is wonderful. Next to me an elderly man is weeping with joy, and most of the rest of us are close.
We have four minutes and some seconds of fine, clear, unobstructed totality, and it passes in the wink of an eye. When we remember to give some thought to the rest of the world we find out that Baja did as well as we did, but almost everybody else had poor seeing or no seeing at all. Almost all the thousands onshore on the Big Island of Hawaii itself were socked in. About the only ones in the area other than ourselves and those on our sister ship who saw true totality were the handful of astronomers on top of Mauna Kea, well above the obstructing clouds. There was a touch of ice fog at the surface, but the eclipse was clear.
And on our ship, when the show was over, Michael, the seven-year-old who had mourned his absence from his Nintendo turned to his grandfather and said, “Now I have something to tell my grandchildren.”
“What grandchildren?” his grandfather asked. “You’ve been telling us you were never going to get married.”
“That was then,” Michael said. “Now I’ve changed my mind.”