Star turn

July 9, 1999

Jennifer Currie meets a man prepared to make a spectacle of himself in the name of a total solar eclipse Not many people would be brave enough to address a packed lecture theatre from behind a pair of fluorescent orange spectacles, but Barrie Jones, head of physics at the Open University, has no qualms. He knows that come August 11 the rest of the United Kingdom will be donning the eyewear to catch a glimpse of the total solar eclipse.

A self-confessed eclipser, Dr Jones has chased the shadows of the moon all over the world. His lecture on the forthcoming eclipse is illustrated with a handful of the photographs he has amassed from his travels around the globe. "You see the privation we eclipsers have to endure?" he asked while flashing up a particularly spectacular picture of an eclipse over a deserted Mogul town in India. His advice to novice observers is practical and to the point. "Book a passage to Zambia", is his measured response to the Milton Keynes resident who asked what were the chances of getting a good view anywhere outside Cornwall. The audience learns to recognise the different stages of the eclipse, and when it is safe to get the binoculars out without incurring a "thermal insult". "Although it is tempting to try to look straight at the eclipse, you should never look at it unprotected," Dr Jones said firmly.

If no special specs are to hand, then the sun's rays should be deflected onto an obliging screen (the back of a shirt is suggested) so the partial eclipse can be viewed safely. Wearing two pairs of sunglasses at once, he warns, is simply not good enough.

First-time eclipsers are told to look out for quirks of nature, such as the tiny crescent shapes created when light filters through surfaces like foliage and straw-hats. The shadow-bands phenomenon is also exclusive to a solar eclipse. "These long patterns mix in with the atmosphere and can be seen blowing across the landscape if there is a gentle wind. They are very dificult to photograph."

The same is true for most of the eclipse experience. Providing aperture measurements and film speeds for those in the know, he advises everyone else to have a look for professional pictures on the internet. "They'll probably be available there in minutes."

The moment of totality is one to remember for the rest of your life. "Take along a tape recorder. What people say during an eclipse is extraordinary." The eerie sensation that accompanies the closing stages of the partial eclipse is just as unforgettable. "When the sun is 80 or 90 per cent covered, people begin to feel quite strange. The temperature drops. Birds return to their nests. There is quite clearly something odd happening."

However, Dr Jones is worried about the weather. "National forecasts don't seem to apply to Cornwall. It has its own micro-climate," he said. "Imagine the scene: A million people trying to cross Cornwall, lots of puffy white clouds that don't go very fast and only one little patch of blue sky." Mobility is therefore essential. "I will be taking a supply of bicycles with me in August," he confided.

Dr Jones's boundless enthusiasm for his subject certainly inspired the audience. "My husband is going to Plymouth to watch it," said Cath Jones, a postgraduate business student. "I'm quite envious now."

Val Powley, an occupational health adviser at the Open University said: "You almost feel that you'll be missing out if you don't see the full thing."

Having amply prepared his audience for a once in a lifetime experience, Dr Jones sends them off with the traditional eclipse chasers farewell: "Clear Skies."

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