Seeing a total solar eclipse is 'like standing on another planet and looking at an alien sky'

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Carol Hills: Let’s leave this world for a few moments and pause to look up at the heavens. It’s showtime tomorrow for total solar eclipse watchers. Not here in the US unfortunately, but over in Europe. If you’ve ever been in the moon’s shadow, the feeling is hard to describe. Lucky for us, we have David Baron to give it a try. He’s our former science editor here at The World and a bit of a total eclipse fanatic. For this occasion, David has traveled to the Faroe Islands far north in the Atlantic Ocean, between Iceland and Norway.


David Baron: Total eclipses choose where they want to go and you have to chase them. This one, the only two places that it will cross land are the Faroe Islands, where I am, and Svalbard, which is up truly in the Arctic, off of Norway.


Hills: I imagine normally the Faroe Islands is sparsely populated. Are you tripping over eclipse chasers like yourself?


Baron: I think this is probably the biggest invasion of foreigners here since the Vikings arrived, is my sense. About 50,000 people live in the Faroe Islands and the figure I hear quoted is 8,000 visitors are expected to arrive by today.


Hills: Where will you be positioned to see the eclipse and what time is this all going to happen?


Baron: The partial eclipse, the beginning, is at 8:40 AM, but the exciting part is the total eclipse. For two minutes, starting at about 9:40 local time tomorrow, the moon will completely cover the surface of the sun. The total eclipse is only visible in what’s called the “path of totality,” which is a couple hundred miles wide. Europe will get          to experience partial eclipse, but the total eclipse will just be in this narrow band. As to where I will go, this is the big question, everyone is talking about this, “Where will you go?” For those two minutes, you want the sun to be in a clear patch of sky, and the Faroe Islands being very cloudy most of the time, finding a clear patch will be difficult. So, everyone has been keeping an eye on the weather forecasts and scoping out what hillside they want to be on or what coastline they want to be on, with plans to make a quick change of plans at the last minute if the clouds should move. So, I’ve chosen a spot outside of Tórshavn, which is the capital city, but I may very well move to a different part of the islands if I need to.


Hills: Tell us what it’s like to see an eclipse and what the whole feeling is like.


Baron: Most everyone has seen a partial solar eclipse. The moon goes across a part of the sun and you put on special glasses, it’s not safe to look at the sun directly with the naked eye, but you’ll see the moon cut a little piece out of the sun, and it’s all very intellectually interesting. But if you’re within that narrow band where the moon actually will cover the sun entirely, during the total eclipse, that’s the only time when it actually is safe to look at the sun without special glasses. What you see in the sky is something that you will never, ever see at any other time. It really is like standing on another planet and looking at a completely alien sky because what is where the sun is supposed to be is now this glorious ring of light. Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s called the Solar Corona, it’s the outer atmosphere of the sun. It looks sort of like a wreath made of silvery thread and it’s different every time. That’s why people get hooked--they want to see the next eclipse because it will be different again. The planets come out and the brighter stars come out, but it’s not like nighttime. It’s a deep twilight on another planet. I’m a science guy, right? I think about things in very practical, logical ways, but it’s a very emotional experience. It connects you in a way to the solar system, to the universe that nothing else has for me. That’s what gets people hooked. I’ll admit to you, I’ve never done LSD but it’s very psychedelic. I think it’s addictive like a drug.


Hills: David, you’re a bit of an eclipse obsessive. How many total eclipses have you witnessed?


Baron: This will be my fourth. In 1998, I was in Aruba. In 1999, I went to Munich. In 2012, I was in Australia. So, having seen three before, it actually makes me a bit of a novice when it comes to eclipse chasing. Total eclipses only occur about once every 18 months somewhere on the planet and often they’re in much more remote places than the Faroe Islands. But here I’ve been meeting eclipse chasers where this will be their 10th, 12th, their 15th total eclipse. So, some people are really fanatical about it.


Hills: Science journalist David Baron. Enjoy the eclipse tomorrow.


Baron: Thank you Carol.