What a wonder to behold

May 06, 2006|By George Michael

A total solar eclipse. Wow! What a great experience! I have always wanted to "do" one. Now I can check off one of my lifetime goals.

I had the special privilege to travel to Togo, West Africa from March 16 to 30. The main purpose was to visit personal friends - three doctors and a nurse - doing medical missions in a hospital in Togo. It was neat to see the important work they are doing there, meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the Togolese.

We planned our trip to coincide with the eclipse that swept across Africa and the Mediterranean on March 29. This was the best total eclipse covering major population areas since 1999.

And what a sight it was! The week before had seen more cloudy weather than sunny. And both days before the eclipse, Monday and Tuesday, were very cloudy with threatening skies. The locals said it was as if the rainy season had started early.


But the morning of the eclipse dawned clear and bright, with just a trace of high, thin clouds. Anticipation was great. I had been teaching Togolese school teachers and also a group of nurse trainees at the hospital there about what was going to happen. I had taken 150 pairs of eclipse shades to pass out to safely view the eclipse. They were so excited.

About 75 of us gathered at 8 a.m. on a dirt airstrip just outside the hospital compound. Others I had met in my travels, who didn't get to the airstrip, gathered at nearby locations.

The eclipse started with first contact just after 8 a.m. We were busy getting pictures and using our eclipse shades. As the moon covered more of the sun, excitement built. I had told the Togolese and the American missionaries with me where to look for Venus and Mercury. About 10 minutes before totality, someone spotted Venus directly overhead. Later, Mercury came into view. What a sight!

We took off our eclipse shades just before totality in order to see some "Bailey's Beads." It happened so fast. A bright burst of light! A beautiful diamond ring. Judy Bowen, immediately to my right, captured a great picture of this sight. What a great job she did.

Using the clock on Judy's Nikon D-200, we determined totality began at 9:13:57 local time. The next three minutes were unlike anything I have ever experienced. The Togolese, in their excitement, were clapping, cheering, and singing. Everyone was ecstatic. Judy and I worked the cameras but tried to enjoy the eclipse at the same time. It was dark, but not as dark as I anticipated. We could see the planets, but not much else. It appeared to me that the high, thin clouds diffused and refracted the light enough to keep things at a faint glow.

This was the fastest three minutes in my life. It was more than my mind could process. The Sun's corona was a bright, silvery ring around the moon. Suddenly, another brilliant burst of light, another diamond ring, hit at 9:17:02 a.m.

We had decided to stay at the hospital to enjoy the eclipse with our friends there. The center line was about 30 miles to the southeast. At that meridian, the eclipse was scheduled to last 3 minutes, 33 seconds. When the eclipse reached southern Libya, it was forecast to last a maximum of 4 minutes, 7 seconds. But southern Libya is a pretty remote location. I never heard if anyone made it to that spot.

This phenomenal event was possible because the moon and the sun are the same apparent size. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon. It also just "happens" to be, on average, 400 times further away. Textbooks will tell you that this is an accident, a cosmic coincidence. I don't see it that way.

We can predict eclipses years in advance because of the mathematical orderliness of the universe. I am inclined to agree with the great king of Israel, David, who said in Psalm 8:3 and 4, "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained (which in Hebrew means to set in order,) what is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you visit him?" There are too many evidences of design in the universe for it to be the result of chance.

I want to do another one. The next "good" eclipse over populated areas cuts across India, northern portions of Southeast Asia, central China, the southern tip of Japan and out into the Pacific Ocean on July 21, 2009. Anyone care to join me? I think it is worth the cost. The next total eclipse in the United States is not until August of 2017. I hope I am still around by then. But you know, it might be cloudy. I'm glad I got to see this one. It was such a special event.

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