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Planetary science

Planetary science

To the ends of the Earth

17 Aug 2017 Hamish Johnston
Taken from the August 2017 issue of Physics World

Eclipse: Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon
Frank Close
2017 Oxford University Press 240pp £12.08

A total solar eclipse

On 30 September 1131 BC, according to physicist and science writer Frank Close, the prophet Joshua looked to the heavens and witnessed one of several solar eclipses mentioned in the Old Testament. But what makes this event special for Close is Joshua’s description of the Sun stopping in the sky and the Moon reversing direction during the eclipse. As a scientist, Close knows that the Moon does not go into reverse, so he was convinced that Joshua experienced an optical illusion – and he wanted to see it too. Eclipse: Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon is the story of Close’s obsession with solar eclipses, which began 63 years ago in East Anglia, UK, where an eight-year-old Close experienced a partial eclipse. Since then, he has travelled to the ends of the Earth to witness total eclipses – racing across the sands of Libya and chasing the darkening Sun on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Indeed, it was while bobbing off the coast of Fiji in less-than-perfect weather conditions that Close finally experienced the “Joshua illusion”. Much of the book is travelogue, and provides a taste of the package tours that take enthusiasts to some of the most improbable places in search of totality. Close also includes a few amusing anecdotes about his fellow fanatics – including one man who seemed convinced that he was going to be plucked off a boat by an alien spacecraft during an eclipse. Close stresses that every eclipse is unique, with an event in the desert being very different from one witnessed at sea. The hook for this book is the total eclipse that will sweep across a vast arc of the US on 21 August. Close wraps up his book with a few tips on how to best view the event – avoiding clouds and traffic jams when possible. And if you miss this month’s eclipse but happen to be in North America in 2024, an eclipse will sweep across Mexico, the US and Canada.

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