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Looking back at the eclipse…

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( Image: Carol Grayson, Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal )

So, that’s it then, after all the build-up and anticipation, the eclipse is over, it’s history, the long-awaited Big Day came and went. Here in Kendal, somewhat disappointingly, we only caught brief glimpses of the eclipsed Sun through the clouds, but that’s more than many people saw, and as you can see from Carol Grayson’s photo at the top there it did look gorgeous when we were allowed to see it by the Cumbrian weather. Of course, the day before the eclipse the Sun was splitting the trees, it was so sunny and hot, and the day after the eclipse was glorious too, as is today. In fact, not half an hour after the eclipse finished the clouds above Kendal tore open and the Sun blazed above The Auld Grey Town for the rest of the day… Not fair, just not fair.

But that’s astronomy for you, at least, astronomy in Cumbria. You get used to it –

Actually no, you don’t. Every meteor shower missed, every naked eye comet that slips away without being enjoyed, every display of the northern lights which rages unseen behind the thick, foul grey hurts. It hurts. It feels like a cruel injustice, especially when you see everyone else’s glorious images on Spaceweather.com. You never get used to it.

Seeing anything exciting “up there” in the Cumbrian Sky is such a challenge, and we beat the weather so rarely, that if you don’t want to go mad, or turn into a twisted, bitter astronomical Gollum, hating others for their better lives, you learn to take pleasure – or to try and take pleasure – in the success of others, so I am genuinely pleased that such a large number of people across the UK were able to see the eclipse, or at least some part of it –

– and I am absolutely furious that some children were actually banned from watching it from their schools, and were instead forced to “enjoy” the spectacle inside, on TV.

No, I’m not joking. In 2015, when eclipse-watching safety advice is available to anyone, for free, with a moment’s searching on Google, when most towns and cities have at least one astronomical society, some children were actually banned from watching the eclipse outside. It beggars belief.

Think I’m making this up? Think this is just one of those “urban myths” which pop up at times like this? Unfortunately, no.

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You might expect such a thing in countries or in societies which are more superstitious or religious. You might expect such a thing in places where religious zealots and science-hating, black flag-waving fanatics rule the population with guns and knives. You absolutely wouldn’t expect it in a country that is science savvy, the country of Patrick Moore, Brian Cox, Sir Isaac Newton, the Royal Observatory and Jodrell Bank.

I know schools have to be very careful with their pupils’ safety, they have an extremely serious responsibility to ensure it. And maybe, being charitable, some of the people involved did believe they were doing the right thing. But they were wrong. Preventing kids from viewing this eclipse was a huge mistake.

Here in Kendal we lost count of how many kids were brought down to watch the eclipse by their parents, and there were even groups FROM schools which were brought along by their teachers to ensure they were able to enjoy it safely. One Kendal school basically emptied, and dozens of its pupils walked down to watch the eclipse with us. Another school, from faraway Carlisle, packed a coach with kids and sent them down to Kendal to watch it with us.

However, elsewhere – and I’ve read reports of this happening in Devon, Wales, London and elsewhere – idiotic bloody Council pen-pushers and School Governers stopped excited, curious kids from watching the amazing eclipse, and locked them indoors and made them watch it on TV. One headmaster did it because he was panicking about “cultural and religious problems”. Other teachers clearly were just too bone effing idle to do a *little* research about safe ways to watch it, or couldn’t be arsed to contact their local astronomical society to ask them for help and advise. Shame on all of them. They stopped those poor kids from experiencing something magical, something which they would have remembered for the rest of their lives. It’s disgusting.

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For pity’s sake, we’re always being told by talking heads on TV how kids spend too *much* time staring at screens, how they’re living their lives staring at phone, tablet and TV screens instead of getting out into the real world to enjoy real life, and then when one of nature’s most wonderful events came along, and dropped on our doorstep, with not weeks or even months but YEARS of notice, offering schools and teachers a golden opportunity to show kids the mechanical workings of the solar system, to engage with science, to unplug from the Matrix and get out into the real world, some stupid idiots wasted it.

“Not having enough time to prepare” is nonsense – the exact date and time of this eclipse had been known about for many years, and many astronomical societies were organising and promoting observing events for weeks, even months beforehand. Likewise,  “no safety advice was available” is rubbish too – many astronomical bodies put safety advice online months in advice, as did well known astronomers, professional science writers and bloggers. Any teacher who could be bothered to do a Google search for “Eclipse+safety” would have been shown a list of web pages full of excellent advice. Try it for yourself, now, and you’ll see what I mean. The Society for Popular Astronomy produced fantastic FREE resources, including information sheets, web pages and even videos, explaining exactly how to watch the eclipse safely. Up and down the many country astronomical societies did the same, and/or organised public viewing events. Any that didn’t, and didn’t have a really good excuse, should be ashamed of themselves too; it was our responsibility to ensure as many people as possible saw and enjoyed the event. Seriously, get out of your chairs, step away from the projector and Get Out There And Show People Stuff!!

I know countless schools went to great lengths to make sure their kids were able to watch and enjoy the eclipse, and congratulations to them, because many of those kids will have had an existing interest in science deepened, and other kids will have been excited by science for the first time. Who knows how many of the children who watched Friday morning’s eclipse will go on to pursue astronomy as a hobby, or become involved in some other branch of science?

But others were denied that. And as the rest of the country celebrated a wonderful event they were locked inside, watching it on TV. That makes me furious, it really does.

There won’t be another solar eclipse visible in the UK until 2026, by which time all the kids who missed Friday’s spectacle will have left school, so they really did miss a once in a lifetime opportunity. But although there aren’t any more eclipses for many years, on May 9th next year there will be another event, involving the Sun, which will be observable from across the UK – a Transit of Mercury.

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(Image: Wikipedia)

On that day Mercury will appear to cross the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, which is known as a “Transit”. Silhouetted against the Sun, Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot on projected images of the Sun, or through telescopes fitted with filters. (It will be too small to see through eclipse glasses or with pinhole projectors – or colanders!) The event will take many hours, most of the day in fact beginning at 11am and ending at 5pm, so there will be no “maximum moment” to see or miss, as there was with the eclipse.

We have more than a year to prepare for this; more than a year to make sure that no schoolkids miss it; more than a year to ensure that parents, teachers, Governors, Council officials and everyone else knows how to help the kids under their care to watch the Transit safely and enjoy it.

Let’s make sure that next May no boy or girl who wants to see something amazing in the sky is forced to watch it on TV.

4 Responses

  1. I wouldn’t just blame the teachers. The Government rather scandalously failed to offer any guidance to schools. Having been told by a few teachers that they’d received no advice, I rang the Department of Education Press Office to ask what they had done to prepare schools for the eclipse. The official I spoke to replied, without a moment’s hesitation, “We’re leaving it to the schools.” Considering that the Government claims to want to get more kids into science, I thought this was a dereliction of duty. Thank goodness for the work of the RAS and SPA in preparing a leaflet and video!

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