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Eighty-eight days till the next total eclipse of the Sun

Nature won’t repeat the mistake of its founding editor when this summer’s totality is visible in the United States.

Solar eclipses have long fascinated people across the world. Credit: Rob Stothard/Getty

In an Editorial written in these pages in January 1900, the editor of Nature took the unusual step of describing something that bugged him. More, he listed the singular moment, almost 30 years previously, when he had “never felt more annoyed in my life”.

Norman Lockyer, this journal’s founder and original editor, was fascinated by solar eclipses. And he knew that others were, too. So when he asked a Captain Bailey of the Royal Engineers, who had travelled 400 miles to help observe an eclipse in India, to time the event, Lockyer was horrified to see the man deliberately turn his chair to face away from the Sun to focus on the task. The man from the military missed the 1871 show, and all because of Lockyer’s self-confessed “ignorance of eclipse organisation”.

No editor of Nature will make that mistake again. So, in plenty of time, this week we offer readers the first official notification that chairs must be turned to face the correct way on 21 August. That’s when the shadow of a total solar eclipse will race across a broad corridor of the continental United States. And in a Books and Arts piece, Jay Pasachoff, whets the appetite with a review of four new books pegged to what he calls “the most stupendous sight in nature”. Some 12 million people across 14 US states live beneath the direct path of the summer totality, and millions more are expected to make the trip to see it.

Among the historical eclipses discussed in the review — from cloudy Cornwall in 1999 to ancient Babylonia — is the notable presence at an 1878 observation in Wyoming of a young Thomas Edison. (Who, of course, would help to launch his own celebrated journal a couple of years later.) Edison had brought a self-designed instrument to measure heat from the Sun’s corona. Lockyer was there, too. And the editor of Nature was impressed with the “wonderful instrument” built by the founder of Science. “It is quite possible that he may succeed in his expectations,” Lockyer wrote in a report from the site two days before the eclipse. But, in an astute early peer review, he also observed: “The instrument, however, is so young, that doubtless there are many pitfalls to be discovered.”

In the century or so that has followed, scientists have been among the keenest observers of solar eclipses, which offer a rare chance to study the impact of the unusual resulting conditions on everything from the atmosphere to the efficiency of solar panels. And, like Captain Bailey, at least some of this work involves not looking at the sky at the time. Biologists, for example, have watched how tropical tent-web spiders (Cyrtophora citricola) take down their webs during a totality and then rebuild them when the sun reappears.

Lockyer learnt from his guilt about the backwards-sitting Captain Bailey. At future eclipses, he changed his planning and shared the time-keeping duties between two people — one of whom would always face the correct way. With military precision, he got them to swap places half-way through. And to help the army of volunteers time the operation of the bulky telescopes they had brought, Lockyer arranged for a bugler to sound a series of blasts (always on the note G) to mark the countdown from seven minutes to just five seconds before totality.

Eighty-eight days remain before the next one. Consider yourselves well and truly alerted. It’s what Norman would have wanted.

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Eighty-eight days till the next total eclipse of the Sun. Nature 545, 386 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/545385b

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