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Total solar eclipse fans chase a moment in the sun

Column One

They travel thousands of miles to catch the celestial intersection of sun and moon, which some describe as a spiritual high. On Sunday, it happens again.

July 10, 2010|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

"It was always 'Where are Mom and Dad?' instead of 'How are Mom and Dad?' " said Deborah Pasachoff, now 33 and living in Pasadena. Their mother devised a system to keep the daughters in touch — a prepared package of letters, typewritten on turtle-themed stationery, describing what the parents were up to at each step.

"Every day," Deborah said, "whoever was staying with us would read a letter to us — 'I hope you have a good time with so and so this afternoon … today we went to see the Taj Mahal.' "

When the daughters could go with their parents, they often served as educational emissaries, instructing local schoolchildren on how to view an eclipse safely (fine to look straight up when the eclipse is total, but an eye-searing no-no when the sun is partially covered).

And they'd look out for their dad as he fiddled with his instruments during those crucial few minutes of dark.

"We always have to remind him … you can take your eyeball away from these lenses for a minute."

In many ancient mythologies, eclipses were seen as a bad omen, said Isaac Kikawada of Mountain View, a retired professor of Babylonian studies at UC Berkeley who got hooked after viewing his first total eclipse in 2001 and who takes amateur photos of the spectacles. (He is on Easter Island with his wife, Heidi Gerster.) Even now, people in some parts of the world act strangely when confronted by eclipses, beating on pots and pans, for example, or sacrificing chickens.

"Until modern times, an eclipse was something to be feared.... Now we can predict exactly to the second where it happens," Kikawada said. "I celebrate this triumph of science."

The ancient Babylonians identified the 18-year Saros cycle, which can be used to predict solar and lunar eclipses. More than 2,000 years later, a 1919 eclipse played a key role in proving Einstein's theory of general relativity, by demonstrating how light would bend around massive objects like the sun.

These days, scientists like Pasachoff head to solar eclipses because the observations they make reveal facts about the nature and behavior of the sun — and, by extension, more distant stars.

They are also trying to understand how the corona, the sun's "atmosphere" of plasma, can somehow be nearly 1,000 times hotter than the solar surface. Pasachoff and others believe that studying how the sun's magnetic field interacts with the corona could help pave the way to building clean-energy generators on Earth.

So he feels it's hardly overkill to pursue eclipse after eclipse. All he gets, after all, are a few minutes every year or two to move his work ahead.

"If you were a heart surgeon," he said, "and somebody told you if you went to Easter Island next week [you could] look inside a human heart for four minutes and 45 seconds, no one would question you if two years later you said, 'That was great, but I wanna do it somewhere else at the next opportunity.' "

amina.khan@latimes.com

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