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The Dark Side of the Moon

November 3

Nobody told me I was going to scream.

 We all know the science.  The moon goes around the earth about every 28 days; the earth revolves every 24 hours and moves around the sun once every 365 days.  Every so often everything lines up so that as the moon passes in front of the sun things get really dark.  Yes, and when two people are romantically interested in one another it can cause an increased heart rate.  Saying that things get really dark during an eclipse is missing all of the magic.

 At least in this case, the path of totality is only about 15 miles wide.  Across a broad region of Africa and the Atlantic plus a tiny portion of North America you could see a slight change in brightness and with the right equipment a sizable chunk appears to have been bitten out of the sun.  Really cool, but not the same thing.We loaded seven people into a Land Cruiser and set off on an adventure; 150 Miles across truly terrible roads for no reason other than to look at the sun.  I'm not entirely sure what we expected to see.  We've all seen pictures of an eclipse; there's this big black spot where the sun used to be.  This would probably be just like the pictures, but at least I would be able to sound impressive at parties, "Ah yes, this reminds me of the time I was in Eastern Africa watching a total solar eclipse.

 ""This crab dip reminds you of watching a solar eclipse?"

 "Yes, it's been sitting out in the sun too long."

 Nobody told me I was going to scream.

 In the middle ages there are accounts of people going into a mad panic during a solar eclipse.  If you don't know what's going on, having the sun go out can ruin your whole day.  Nobody around here thought the sun was going out, but many did not entirely understand the physics.  In one city tens of thousands of visitors and dignitaries gathered in bleachers.  We chose another city along the path where the traffic was better and the roads were worse.Around 4:00 in the afternoon things began to happen.  The sun was not as intense, and there was a slight orange glow to the sky.  This is when my brother suggested we stop for lunch.  We're working with a Christian organization, so it really would not have been appropriate for me to say the words that occurred to me.

 We compromised by stopping at a grocery store for some lukewarm pizza and ice cream.  Important note: Two Tone ice cream bars are MUCH better when the outside is mango juice instead of orange, (even if they are lukewarm.)  Needing a good open space, we went to the Gulu Airport.  In Uganda it is against the law to photograph any government facilities or activities.  It's kind of a silly rule now that so many people have cell phones, but it's their country and their rules. This was a special occasion and we were told we were welcome as long as we only pointed cameras in a certain direction.  I don't think they wanted anyone to see the Colonel's pot belly.

 My next challenge was how to photograph the sun.  It sounds like it should be really simple, you point a camera in the right direction, and there it is.  Okay, now try to focus.  Actually, the sun is rather small in the sky.  When you look toward it, the main thing you see is glare, a lot of glare.  I slipped the filters into the camera and stopped down the lens and still all I could see was glare.  I made a few adjustments did some tweaks and then it got really dark.  Not the sky, just the image in the viewfinder.  I couldn't see anything, and couldn't figure out where to point the lens.

 The actual disc of the sun takes up about the same portion of the sky as the full moon - seems obvious now, duh, that's why you get an eclipse.  When you stop down a camera lens that far you lose some sharpness, and this is why my pictures don't have the same detail as they would if I had spent the money on a special solar filter.  After several minutes I managed to find the sun and center it in the frame. About a third of it was already covered by the moon.  So I waited and watched.  Some of the tough looking soldiers came over to look through the viewfinder.  They acted unimpressed, but I could tell they liked it.  And then I noticed that the sun was no longer visible in the viewfinder.  Oh yeah, the earth is turning, and when you zoom in this far it doesn't take long for the sun to go out of the shot.

 I adjusted and continued to wait.  Even when the sun is 90% obscured you can't really see the effect with the naked eye.  The glare, not to mention the danger, is too great.  The sky is darker, but it's certainly much more than 10% of it's usual brightness.Even in a partial eclipse, you notice the double shadow.  Normally sunlight comes from a perfect circle.  During an eclipse it is more of a crescent shape.  Your main shadow looks fuzzy around the edges instead of the crisp defined silhouette we normally expect.  When you hold up your hand and extend the fingers it looks like there are ten on each hand, no wait eight, or is it six.  One finger's shadow sort of blends into the next and you can't really tell how many there are.

 The next part happened all of a sudden.  One minute everything is pretty close to normal and then the world is about to end.  The light turns brown.  Not gray, not a softer shade of normal, we are talking UPS truck brown.  The sky feels heavy, like the air has been replaced by a layer of chocolate pudding which pushes down on your shoulders.  It feels strangely cold.  There is a gust of wind and the off color trees began to sway.  I turned and looked directly into the sun.

 That's when I screamed.  I would have been embarrassed, but everyone else was screaming too. Where the sun was supposed to be there was a giant, perfectly round, black dot floating in a sky that was an absolutely elegant shade of bluish gray. There was a bright shimmering ring around the black dot.  Then the ring went away.  My heart apparently wanted to see too, because it made a very serious effort to climb out my throat for a better look.

 One of the worst things a person can say when describing an event is, "Well, you had to be there."  Unfortunately, in this case it is true.  Part of that is because it's not just about seeing the eclipse; it's about the way everything around you changes.  It's also about the waiting, the anticipation and the unexpected. A video will never do it justice because it's not just the sun, it's the whole sky.  I might have gotten some better video if I had known what to expect and had continuously monitored the exposure level - but then I wouldn't have been able to see the show.

 I will not deny that I was incredibly lucky to have this experience.  If you ever have an opportunity to see a total eclipse it is important to tell your co-workers that it's no big deal and probably looks just like the pictures.  This is so they will stay at work and you will be able to call in sick.  If you get caught, it's easier to get another job than to find another eclipse.  

 But I warn you, you're going to scream.

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