Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Ancestral links

There are maps you can buy which show how light pollution blocks out the night skies. Look at the map for the UK, and English star-gazers have it the worst. It would take a visit to a few scattered oases in Northumberland, East Anglia or the West Country or a trip in a plane to see the night skies anything like our ancestors once enjoyed. 

Partial eclipse over Cambridgeshire

We are more divorced than ever from the celestial backdrop that once held them in awe. But there is one astronomical event, perhaps the most precious wonder of the Solar System, where even the most dazzling night sky won't be an advantage. 

Cambridgeshire Fens
Yesterday, people standing across a great swathe of the Earth's surface saw the Moon take a big bite out of the Sun. For north Africa and much of Europe, the event began at sunrise. North-east Sweden had the best sight. From 0850 GMT, near the city of Skelleftea, the Moon covered almost 90% of the Sun's diameter. 

Dense cloud cover disappointed most British sky-gazers hoping to catch a glimpse of a partial solar eclipse. However stargazers in East Anglia, particularly the Cambridgeshire fens,  were among the fortunate few to witness the magical display. 

I remember vividly the day the sky went black on June 30th 1954. I was just four years old and didn't know what was happening. It was early afternoon. I was walking along the street with my mother and aunt. Suddenly, the sky began to darken and the warmth began to fade as the sun was blotted out, not by clouds but by a huge shadow passing across it. In Manchester, the eclipse was almost total and was certainly a fearful event for me. Neither my mother nor my aunt broke stride but I froze with fright. In that moment of total darkness and cold,  I shared some of the emotions of our distant ancestors as I experienced an event I for which I had no explanation.