Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Class: A Tale of Two Eclipses

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The BLAsT Class poses with Martin Ratcliffe at the Allen H. Stewart Lions Camp // photo by Jamz Engelking
By Cristal Hernandez and Aliyah Mohammed

After two weeks in Australia filled with pulsars, radio astronomy, southern constellations, the Dish, black holes, and gravitational waves (AND KANGAROOS!!), the BLAsT class made its way up to Casper, Wyoming. On our first day there, Martin Ratcliffe (Professional Development Director for SkySkan, adjunct faculty member at Wichita State University, and contributing editor for Astronomy magazine), gave us a tale of two eclipses.

Eclipse fever grips Casper. Racks of eclipse merchandise can be found at Target. // photo by C. Renee James
The two eclipses were both in India: One in 1898 and the other in 1995, which Ratcliffe observed with a film crew. His presentation was incredibly eye-opening to say the least. I never realized how much we have grown and advanced with science, technology, and transportation in a century. We thought that WE had it tough driving 3 hours to Dallas, flying for 3 hours to Denver, and then flying another hour to Casper, arriving to the Allen H. Stewart Lions Camp on Casper Mountain around 1 a.m. In 1898, scientists from England had to embark on a 6-week trip via ship, and then spend an additional few days on a train to make it to the eclipse line. In 1898, the plague was actually an issue at the original observing location, so the expedition was forced move their heavy equipment to a new camp by horse and carriage. Once there, it took them a total of 3 weeks to properly set up all of their equipment and perform nightly observations.

Martin Ratcliffe's presentation definitely didn't grate on us. // photo lifted from Martin Ratcliffe's Facebook page

At our camp, everyone seems to be one big happy family, and there are telescopes set up in the clearing 24/7. But when astronomers were doing night-time observations for the 1898 eclipse, the police had to keep the locals, who were very intrigued in what the astronomers were doing, away from their camp.

The 1898 eclipse, with totality lasting 2 minutes, coincided with the Hindu Festival, Kumbh Mela, which is a pilgrimage of purification. Fast forward about a century later to 1995 for an eclipse that coincided with the Diwali festival of lights and a period of totality lasting a mere 44 seconds!  That’s so quick! Astronomers have to do so much work every time there is an eclipse to have it be only 44 seconds. But those precious seconds sound so exciting. Ratcliffe played a bit of a movie made during the 1995 eclipse, complete with confused crowing rooster and panicking cameraman who wanted to make sure the filter was put back on his expensive camera after totality ended, and for someone like me who has never seen a total eclipse, it all definitely sounds worth it. 

Even the bean bag toss game at the camp looks like an eclipsed sun, complete with corona. // photo by C. Renee James

It’s crazy to think about how truly difficult it was for astronomers back in the day to not only carry much larger and heavier equipment than we do today, but also to travel for weeks, sometimes even months, all in the name of science. One thing that has stayed the same, however, even now amidst the 2017 eclipse, hotels claim "no accommodation along the eclipse line" because of the number of people rushing in to witness nature’s greatest cover up.


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