Saturday, November 17, 2012

Total Solar Eclipse 2012 - Cairns, Australia

My wife, astrophysicist Tui Britton, and I were fortunate enough to be with friends in Cairns during the total solar eclipse on 14 November 2012.  It was a great week, in which we visited several rainforest reserves, beaches, and waterfalls.  I gave a talk on Aboriginal views of eclipses while Prof Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize in Physics, 2011) talked about the mechanics of eclipses and cosmology for Small World Journeys, which was well received.

On the morning of the eclipse, clouds in Cairns threatened our view, but Tui and I decided to jump in the car to find a better spot, just minutes before totality (we had nothing to lose!).  We stopped by a row of shops near the airport and managed to film part of the ingress.  But just before totality, the clouds rolled in.  While we were frustrated that we were missing totality, it was still an amazing experience.  The 120 km wide shadow, travelling at 1,000 km per hour, rushed over.  The sky went dark, dogs started barking, the birds went silent, the temperature dropped, and Venus (which was the only planet that wasn't obscured by clouds) shone brightly overhead.  It was my first total eclipse and an emotional experience.

Fortunately, the clouds cleared just enough for us to see the black disc of the moon surrounded by the corona of the sun (below) for about 15 seconds before the sun popped out again, forming the diamond ring.  The sky (still largely obscured by clouds) shone a brilliant orange as the sun peeked out from behind the disc of the moon - we just managed to see it!

The total solar eclipse as seen from Cairns - just before moving out of totality.
Image by Duane Hamacher.

In the Aboriginal traditions of Arnhem Land, we just witnessed the moon man making love to the sun woman.  It was a nail-biting experience, but one I will always remember.  As an astronomer, it was a real tear-jerker moment - one I plan on experiencing again and again!  Later in the week, I was grateful to have a lovely chat with Paul Curnow and Gail Glasper.  Gail is an artist and Paul (BEd) is school teacher and amateur astronomer who has been lecturing at the Adelaide Planetarium for nearly 20 years.  Paul has researched the astronomy of several local Aboriginal groups, such as the Kaurna of Adelaide anAdnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges.

With a few media interviews to get the word of Aboriginal astronomy out to the public, it was a fun, exciting, and productive week.  I made a short video of our experience, which I share below.  Read more about solar and lunar eclipses in Aboriginal traditions or Torres Strait traditions).

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