diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 21, 2015

The ceiling of cloud cleared somewhere between Northampton and Rugby. By Coventry there were sharp shadows, and by Birmingham the sky was almost completely blue. I permitted myself a smug smile as I disembarked the train at New Street, having seemingly picked a perfect location to view the morning's eclipse. If you were trapped under leaden clouds in southeast England, do try harder next time.

At Paradise Circus I whipped out my bright orange eclipse glasses, carefully saved from the 1999 event. Already, twenty minutes into the eclipse, a substantial chunk of the right hand side of the sun was missing. Nobody else rushing by on their way to work seemed to be interested, or indeed to have noticed, despite the fact they had atmospheric conditions Londoners would have killed for. I made my way to the Library of Birmingham, its golden exterior glinting in the partial sunlight, having decided that its roof would offer the best viewing spot.

"Are you here for the event?" asked the member of staff hovering by the door. I should perhaps have brazened my way in and joined the wine-supping guests in pride of place on the third floor balcony. Instead I shuffled off and took the lift to the seventh floor, where public participation was permitted. The outside balcony faces mostly north and west, which is precisely what this eclipse didn't demand, but there were two flanks from which the sun could be clearly seen. Specs on... and already approaching half-swallowed.

Although I was well-prepared, most of the dozens of Brummies up top were rather less so. Some had brought sunglasses in the hope that this would be sufficient - one bloke even doubling up for perceived additional safety. Some had proper cameras with expensive lenses, but most were merely waving their phones at the sky in the vain hope it might record something special. And top marks to one group of retired friends who'd brought a colander to focus the shape of the sun onto a piece of paper, and a cannibalised box of biscuits to act as a pinhole camera. As the aerial spectacle unfolded they saw not much, but still more than the iPhone generation alongside.

The sky was perfectly blue apart from a bank of thin high cloud to the south. This obscured the sun slightly, not enough to block it out but enough to diffuse the sharpness of its outline. Thankfully with ten minutes to go before maximum eclipse the sun had risen high enough in the sky to reach unobstructed blue, pinpoint-edged, and my choice of viewing location was utterly validated.

One of the most amazing things about a partial solar eclipse is the way the shadow of the moon moves relentlessly across the sun's disc. You look up once and a bite has gone, you look up five minutes later and the bite is a) larger, and b) further round. This phenomenon became especially obvious (to those of us with specs) around half past nine, as the sun shrank dramatically to a toenail-shaped crescent. Initially its two horns sloped right, then at maximum eclipse they pointed almost straight up like the ends of a smile, and shortly afterwards sloped to the left instead.

And yet, even with 87% of the sun obscured, it never really got dark. Even as a declining crescent our star pumps out a phenomenal amount of light, always too bright to squint at, so there was no dramatic dimming, and absolutely no lampposts switched on. There was an odd quality to the light, a bit like half an hour before dusk, but because everything happened so relentlessly gradually there was no step change in light at all. I suspect the percentage needs to be into the nineties, or the clouds thick enough to make it pretty dark already, before any kind of cosmic dimmer switch becomes apparent.

There was no massed whoop or sharp intake of breath at maximum eclipse, because nothing obviously special happened. A partial solar eclipse doesn't have a "wow" moment, the moon merely reaches its halfway point across the solar disc and continues out the other side. Indeed to those in Birmingham attempting to watch with the unaided eye there was no way to know that only a sixth of the sun remained, other than by checking their watch and saying "ah, I think this is it." Indeed you could well imagine, before the arrival of the media, that our ancient ancestors would have experienced similarly large eclipses without ever realising they were taking place.

Much of the crowd dispersed at this point, the spectacle having peaked, despite the fact that for the next three quarters of an hour the eclipse would still be larger than anything we'll see in Britain for the next decade. I imagine some left disappointed, having expected instant darkness or a Biblical sliver of gold hanging in the sky. But I carried on looking intermittently over the next hour until the eclipse finally edged away, from whatever bit of Birmingham I happened to be in at the time. And I'm well chuffed, because that's the largest eclipse I've ever seen, as opposed to experienced, and conditions were pretty much perfect.

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