Baily’s Beads

When the Moon covers the Sun in a total eclipse, the gaps in the Moon’s surface allow some rays of the Sun to pass through before totality.  The effect looks like beads of light around the Moon’s shadow—Baily’s Beads, named after British astronomer Francis Baily.  Then, all but one of the beads disappear and one bright spot of sunlight remains—the Diamond Ring.

I wanted to experience the total eclipse that happened last April.  I planned on it for years.  My friend and her son were also interested, so I left it in their hands to organize the trip.  I bought an airplane ticket and flew to Boston.  From there we went to New Hampshire and on to Maine.  Along the way we discussed where to go to see the eclipse.

The weather was my biggest worry.  The forecast was for Maine to be clear but Texas cloudy.  Thus, New England braced for a sudden influx of thousands.  Soon, traffic was my second biggest worry.  Overriding all of this was my desire to find the perfect place to experience what would likely be for me a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Total eclipses happen regularly, but not necessarily conveniently.  Any one spot on the Earth’s surface will see a total eclipse pass overhead only once every 375 years, more or less.

Fortunately, all my companions were as interested as I in finding just the right place to view the eclipse, and we spent the better part of a day driving around looking at options. I had been looking at a map of the projected path of the eclipse in Maine and saw that Mount Katahdin was in the path.  I have wanted to go there ever since I bought a Katahdyn water filter many years ago.  I thought that being in a state park with that beautiful mountain nearby would be just the thing.  It turned out the park was closed, but  nearby we found the perfect rock to sit on overlooking a perfect meadow with Mount Katahdin at our backs and not a power line in sight.  The next day we started out early and headed straight for our site, with precious little traffic in our way.  That said, others had the same idea and we eventually shared our spot on the dirt road with 15-20 other cars.  We claimed our rock and stayed there for the next three hours.  The sky was blue, the Sun was warm, and there was not a cloud in the sky.

After an hour, the Moon started taking a bite out of the Sun.  The bite became bigger and bigger until the Sun was entirely covered.  At this point I thought there would be complete darkness when the Moon completely blocked out the Sun.  I had been told the birds would stop chirping and expected there would be three minutes of darkness and quiet while the world held its breath.  So wrong.  Instead, the blending of the Moon and the Sun bloomed into an incredibly beautiful gem in the sky.  The black Moon was rimmed with a halo of angelic rays with red beads at the bottom edge—Baily’s Beads.  The beads were red because of the reddish glow of the Sun’s chromosphere, visible only during a total eclipse.  And then when the Moon is centered over the Sun and one bead is left, the Diamond Ring.

At the totality, all 50 or so people present gasped at the sudden beauty.  For three minutes, the sounds of pure joy and wonder filled the air.  And then, the Sun emerged from the other side of the Moon and made its way back into its former place in the sky.

I was surprised by a number of things.  First, it never got really dark because the Sun’s rays were always visible, and the eclipse itself was more beautiful than I had imagined.   Second, I was looking to see how the colors of the world might change as the light dimmed.  The colors greyed but did not really change until a soft violet glow covered everything just before the full eclipse.  Third was the unifying effect it had on the people experiencing the eclipse.  For a few brief minutes, all of us, from all walks of life, were captivated and enthralled by the magnificent show put on by the heavenly bodies that allow us to live.