THE longest-duration total solar eclipse of this century occurred on July 22, 2009 with the path of totality passing through many parts of India. While many other cosmic events such as full moon, new moon and different phases of the moon are visible frequently, and even partial eclipses of the sun or moon occur quite often, the opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse is rare. At any given place on Earth, a total solar eclipse would occur only once in about 370 years on the average. Total solar eclipse was to be visible in India after 1995 and the next opportunity to view a total eclipse of similar duration will arise only in 2132.
A total solar eclipse such as this one arises due to the simultaneous occurrence of three cosmic phenomena namely the moon in its orbital path coming in between the earth and the sun, all three being on the same plane, and the moon appearing to be the same size as the sun due to the respective distances of each from the earth at that particular time. If the moon was further away from the earth, it would appear smaller and would not cover the sun totally resulting in an “annular” eclipse or one where a thin ring of the sun is visible even as the moon covers a large part of it, something like a small coin on top of a larger one.
When a total solar eclipse occurs, the shadow of the moon falls on certain regions of earth from where the sun is totally “blocked”. Since the earth is not stationary but rotates around its own axis, the shadow of the moon moves across the face of earth on a trajectory that is called belt of totality.
The totality belt during the total solar eclipse of July 22, 2009 passed through Vadodara, Bhopal, Indore, Varanasi, Patna, Siliguri, Gangtok and Tawang before it passed over Burma, China, Japan and the Pacific Ocean. This eclipse is now considered to be most watched total solar eclipse ever, since the eclipse path passed over heavily populated regions of China and India.
And therein lies the story. In a land such as India where superstitions abound, especially about cosmic phenomena and eclipses in particular which are considered inauspicious, the very fact that millions of people came out to watch the spectacle was a triumph for science and a scientific attitude.
MILLIONS WATCH ECLIPSE
The eclipse generated huge enthusiasm in the country, and brought out people especially the youth, in huge numbers in sharp contrast to just two decades ago. During previous partial eclipses in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, streets were deserted, most people stayed indoors with all kinds of fears and apprehensions.
This time too, astrologers, soothsayers and various kinds of alarmists came out in strength warning of all kinds of harmful effects or even catastrophe. Rumours abounded that the world will come to an end, that the sun becoming “invisible” was evidence of the wrath of God, that the longest eclipse over India was a particularly bad omen. The traditional injunction that people especially pregnant women should not venture out during the eclipse was reinforced on the false scientific-sounding claim that the sun during eclipse radiates harmful rays. Some so-called experts even appeared on different TV channels to claim that cooked food would become contaminated with growth of pathogens due to the absence of sunlight during totality, that food cooked before the eclipse should be thrown away and so on, thereby reinforcing the superstition against cooking or eating during the eclipse.
Even scientists’ precautions regarding safe viewing of the eclipse were misused by some people to spread fear and superstition. Needless to say, nothing new occurs in the sun during an eclipse as compared to any other time. If food were to be spoilt or unborn foetuses to be harmed, this should happen even during cloudy days or at night! Ophthalmologists do not say that looking at the eclipse is dangerous, they are advising that staring at the sun is harmful, even during normal days, whereas the dimming of the sun during an eclipse may tempt people to keep looking at the sun directly.
Despite all this, enthusiastic millions turned out to watch the eclipse. Even at the ghats of Varanasi, where lakhs of pilgrims had gathered for a holy dip in the Ganga during the eclipse, huge numbers could be seen enjoying the spectacle using special solar filters meant for safe viewing of the sun.
Of course, scientists especially astronomers and amateur enthusiasts turned out in large numbers. “Astro-tourists” from all over the world poured into different Indian cities and towns along the path of totality, as indeed they did into China and parts of Japan. That the eclipse took place during the International Year of Astronomy was the icing on the cake. So great was the enthusiasm around this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that special chartered flights flying above the monsoon clouds carried passengers who had paid as much as Rs 60,000 per seat!
For scientists the eclipse provided a rare opportunity to study the sun from the earth. Despite huge advances in space-based instrumentation, total solar eclipses enable astronomers to make high-resolution observations using large and heavy equipment that can be moved to locations on the path of totality. During an eclipse, the scattered light from the sun’s corona is about 1000 times less than can be usually found for studies by coronagraphs. Studies of the sun’s corona were an important part of observations made during the eclipse of July 22. However, due to the monsoon conditions prevailing over most of India, many teams of scientists from India travelled to China for these studies.
PSM SURYA GRAHAN UTSAVS
The People’s Science Movement (PSM) through its umbrella organisation, the All India People’s Science Network which affiliates more than 40 state-level PSM organisations undertook a nationwide campaign to celebrate the 2009 Total Solar Eclipse both in itself, and as part of the International Year of Astronomy. Surya Grahan Utsavs were organised in various parts of the country on the day of the eclipse. For months before the event, public campaigns had been organised to explain the phenomena of eclipses and the various mythologies associated with it. Safe viewing methods were also disseminated in the form of special solar filters, thousands of which were made and sold by PSM groups. Numerous workshops were held and grassroots activists trained in science popularisation and the people’s science perspective. Various communication forms such as lectures, films, songs and street plays were used.
As a culmination of this campaign, a three-day Surya Grahan Utsav was organised in Patna, along the path of totality and with a long totality duration. Over 650 delegates from various states of India such as Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand etc had gathered in Patna at their own cost. On July 20 and 21, in various colleges, schools and scientific institutions around Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, various parallel workshops were organised for the PSM activists and local participants, especially students. Illustrated lectures in English and Hindi were delivered by experts and resource persons on topics such as Explaining the Panchang or Almanac, Astrology and Science, the Cosmos, Eclipses, Climate Change and Landmarks in the History of Astronomy. Film shows on popular science themes including astronomy were screened. Day-time astronomy, night-sky viewing, telescope-making, solar projector making, astronomy through role play and many other hands-on activities were also organised.
The Utsav galvanised Patna and generated great enthusiasm across different sections of society. The local press, both print and audio-visual, especially FM radio stations, were eager to cover the events and spread the message of the unfolding celestial drama of the eclipse. The PSM events assumed further importance for Patna since the nearby town of Taregna, hailed as among the best viewing spots in India, had become a huge centre of national and international attention.
More than 25,000 people gathered at Gandhi Maidan by dawn of July 22, the day of eclipse, unmindful of the threatening monsoon skies. As it turned out, and as apprehended due to the prevailing monsoons, overcast conditions and rains did play spoilsport, not only in Patna but in most parts of India except in Varanasi and a few other locations where totality was visible.
Solar filters had been sold over the previous few days. So great was the enthusiasm among the people of Patna, that some minor scuffles even broke out in the scramble to buy what turned out to be a short supply of filters! The AIPSN also erected huge sheets with filter panels stitched into them across the Maidan to facilitate viewing of the sun by the large crowds. A large projection screen had also been erected inside a pandal for viewing live TV or webcast images of the eclipse.
The thousands of eagerly awaiting local people, including numerous families out for a memorable event, and the hundreds who had gathered in Patna from all over India unfortunately could not see the totality and the build-up to it. However, the gradually darkening of even the morning overcast sky as the eclipse commenced was greeted with applause and even a sudden downpour did not dampen the enthusiasm of the people as the time of totality approached. At the stroke of 6:24 it suddenly started getting dark and in a few minutes the dawn had turned into midnight, greeted with loud cheers by the crowds gathered in the Maidan.
Even though totality itself could not be seen, with its dramatic visuals such as the diamond ring, the daytime darkness was a new experience for who had gathered. Totality lasted about four minutes and to thunderous applause, the clouds suddenly cleared. Birds headed back to their nests, and then came out again, circling the sky in confusion. A rooster mistaking it for a second dawn, started to crow and delighted the crowds.
The entire second half of the eclipse was clearly visible and was gleefully observed by all. Many of them had never witnessed any kind of solar eclipse, so the spectacle lasting till 7:20 was a grand experience. Partially eclipsed sun appeared in crescent shape and some people mistook it to be moon! Scientists and amateur astronomers at the Maidan guided the viewers, explained phenomena and answered questions.
Remarkably, there were more people gathered at the Maidan for viewing the eclipse than at the Ganga ghats for a dip!
Reports from different parts of the country revealed similar enthusiasm. This is a long way from 1980, when a total solar eclipse occurred in India, when the main public TV played a popular movie to ensure that people did not come out, and when public transport was suspended in many cities.
No doubt, superstitions of different kinds including around cosmic events and astrology persist, and many people may still take a “purifying” bath after an eclipse. But one may indeed conclude that the fear in India surrounding a solar eclipse has largely been put to rest during the total solar eclipse of July 2009. Conquering of this fear and people opening their minds to scientific curiosity and rational inquiry has undoubtedly been a major development.
This has not happened by chance or even through normal processes of modernisation or secularisation, but has come about through the concerted efforts of numerous science popularisers, scientific institutions and agencies, and sections of the media over the past two to three decades. Whereas the total solar eclipse of 1995 can be considered as a breakthrough event, the July 2009 eclipse will undoubtedly be recognised as a watershed. In these endeavours, the Peoples Science Movement has played a very significant role.