The Gonzo Scientist

How Astronomers Have Fun (and Nearly Die Trying)

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Science  05 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5894, pp. 1297b
DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5894.1297b
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A series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers.

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All articles in the series

With just seconds of sun remaining, I got it. I finally understood what motivated the scientists to make the exhausting, expensive, and, at times, dangerous journey out here to this scorched, rubble-strewn stretch of the Gobi Desert. Until this moment, as the wall of darkness rushed toward us a tad faster than the speed of sound, I couldn't figure what made a solar eclipse field trip worth the effort. After all, it's nothing more than a shadow, right? But even knowing that, my heart raced. I guess it was the mind-boggling scale that overwhelmed me, putting me in my proper place as a tiny, vulnerable speck on a speck within a universe of titanic events.

Then again, I was also in the midst of a mob of Mongolians—many of them terrified—trying to dissuade the monstrous god Rah from eating the sun. A shaman marched in a quickening gyre around an impromptu rock shrine, chanting and beating a drum. A flash from above and the sun was gone. In its place was a menacing black eye ringed with glowing silver tendrils. A petrol-soaked bonfire burst into flame, the shaman shouted at the bruised sky, and then several hundred people essentially went insane.

What's Ahead

All Illustrations: Katrien Kolenberg

Extreme Scientific Sport

I had no idea what I was getting into when my astrophysicist girlfriend, Katrien, talked me into this. “You've never seen the totality,” she said with a slightly crazed look. It's the look people have when they describe their passion for BASE jumping, parkour, or extreme ironing. Indeed, if science has extreme sports, eclipse chasing is one.

The trip felt extreme before it even began. The moon's shadow was set to cut a path through Siberia, Mongolia, and China late in the afternoon of 1 August. In terms of observation conditions, the ideal location was western Mongolia where the Gobi Desert meets the Altai Mountains. But getting there was another matter.

Besides me, our team consisted of four astrophysicists—Ray Jayawardhana (University of Toronto, Canada), Kosmas Gazeas (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, U.S.), Kazuhiro Sekiguchi (National Astronomical Observatory, Japan), and Katrien Kolenberg (University of Vienna, Austria)—plus a remote-sensing researcher, Tuvjargal Norovsambuu (National University of Mongolia). First, we had to get to the capital, Ulaanbaatar—halfway around the world for Jayawardhana. From there we bought domestic flights to the dusty western outpost of Khovd. These were suddenly canceled and new flights to the west became available for twice the price, $1000 roundtrip.

I expected that our next trial would be getting the equipment past airport security on the domestic flight. We showed up at Ulaanbaatar's airport with 100 kg of equipment, including two telescopes, but we boarded without a hitch. A few hours later, I stepped out into Khovd's blinding sunlight like a happy fool, thinking the worst was over. It wasn't. After months of preparation for a 2-minute event, we found ourselves stuck in Khovd with time running out.

The Mongolian member of our team, Tuvjargal, was on his way by car instead of plane to save money. Meanwhile, we were waiting for permission from the director of Khovd University to make the 400-kilometer trip over the nearby Altai range to the observation site, but he was “unavailable.” So the scientists gave public lectures on astronomy and learned how to ride the stocky, good-natured horses that drove the Mongol hordes to the eastern gates of 13th century Europe. We also explored a nearby lake, returning in a record-breaking sprint, covered in bites. (Note to self: The Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, flies faster than a human runs.) Then word arrived that Tuvjargal had been in an accident.

I was perplexed when Tuvjargal arrived in Khovd looking as happy as ever. In the rush to get there in time, he had driven night and day. When his exhausted driver fell asleep at the wheel, the car drifted and launched off some landscape feature, rolling fully twice before grinding to a halt on its side. Both survived. Tuvjargal emerged with bloody scrapes on his arms and legs and a persistent deep-chest pain. But all he had to say to us, with his usual easy smile, was, “No problem. Let's go.” An extreme sportsman par excellence. Finally, we embarked on the 16-hour off-road roller-coaster ride in a Russian four-wheel-drive version of a Volkswagen minibus. Numerous vomit stops caused further delay.

There were many sublime moments of peace and beauty that turned pain to pleasure. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. Moving through its gorgeous landscape is like visiting Earth 10,000 years ago. It also makes chance human contact a special event. After darkness fell, we stopped at a ger, one of the portable tent-houses of the nomads. A man, woman, and small baby were already asleep, but they lit a fire and immediately cooked us a mutton stew. A traveling band of musicians arrived. They pulled out their instruments and gave a haunting performance, including throat-singing, which you can hear in this audio slideshow.

In spite of having already driven 12 hours—as well as imbibing several obligatory swigs of vodka in the ger—our driver was resolute that we should press on. After bouncing along a narrow ledge over an appalling canyon, I noticed the driver nodding off, carving a sloppy S along the path. We felt death around the very next corner, so we insisted on stopping. While the driver snoozed in his seat, we waited out the cold night in sleeping bags on an Altai peak. I stared up at the blaze of a Milky Way swarming with meteors and satellites. At dawn, we descended to the Gobi as if returning from outer space.

The First Kiss

“This is the one,” said Gazeas, pointing the driver to a Gaussian hill overlooking a vast, lifeless valley. We parked at the top, and Gazeas began setting up the telescopes to track the sun. The car provided the only shadow. The sky was cloudless, and a freak rain the day before had cleared the dust. Perfect.

We'd slept through the noon broil in a tiny settlement called Bulgan. The family whose ger we'd borrowed hopped in the car. On the way out, we visited a gathering of people at the side of the road. Having been alerted to the impending eclipse, a shaman was performing a sun ritual. In a variation on the good-luck procedure for travel, locals walked slow circles around an impromptu shrine, tossing on stones and fermented mare's milk. There we met a Mongolian television crew whose members interviewed the scientists one by one. Now with just an hour to go before the start of the eclipse, the film crew joined us. The traveling throat-singers found us, too, as well as a curious Mongolian opera singer. Word travels fast when science comes to town.

Luckily, we came prepared. Up on the hill, Gazeas whipped out a stack of magic eclipse-viewing glasses—filters that make the sun look like a dim bulb—and warned everyone against using their naked eyes. “That is, until the totality, which is completely safe,” he said, to which they nodded uncertainly.

Meanwhile, the scientists went over the observation protocol like a huddled football team. Kolenberg: flash spectrum of sun at transition to totality and photography of sky during totality. Sekiguchi: spotting of first umbral darkening of mountains and animal responses to totality. Gazeas: manning of telescopes and tracking humidity and temperature. (Tuvjargal's lot was tending to the telescope motor dying in the heat.) “Ten minutes to go until the first kiss!” said Gazeas, installing himself cross-legged in his telescope cockpit.

In the poetic lingo of eclipse chasing, the first kiss is the moment when the moon begins to overlap the sun, denting its disk ever so slightly. The kiss grows more romantic over the course of an hour until all but the tiniest morsel of sun is covered. Because the moon is studded with bumps and craters, the sun's blinding photosphere makes its exit in a final localized flash on the moon's edge—the “diamond ring”—followed by a string of red beads from the sun's glowing hydrogen atmosphere—the “ruby ring”—and finally, the showstopper, the silvery corona is revealed for a few minutes of totality.

The air felt electric as we waited for the first kiss. The scheduled time arrived. No kiss. A minute passed. Nothing. Five minutes, 10, still nothing. “Could the sun be running late?” I asked stupidly. Gazeas tore open a folder. “It's more likely that I got the time wrong,” he said, rummaging through his papers. After a spirited debate over Greenwich Mean Time and Coordinated Universal Time, we decided that we, not the sun, were probably wrong. Half an hour later, I couldn't help but feel relief when Gazeas announced, “We have the first kiss!”

The scientific work was just getting started, but Jayawardhana and I jumped in the car and sped away. We had a date with a shaman.

Drop It, Rah!

These days, most people are wise to the moon's harmless party trick. But out here in western Mongolia, old beliefs run strong. There you are, going about your business—watching your animals graze, scraping your hides—when the sun starts to wither. It should be a burning hot day like any other, but the air suddenly cools, the light dims, and the shadows under the trees become constellations of glowing crescents. The animals lie down as if night is coming. The birds sing their dusk chorus. Then, in a flash, the sun turns into a diseased-looking sore, a cold black hole rather than a giver of life. Dogs howl, children cry. The world is ending.

As the story goes, a being named Rah—described to me variously as a dragon, god, or monster—hunts the sun relentlessly. When he catches it—and that happens, at most, once in a generation—Rah slowly swallows the sun like a snake swallows an egg. Immediate action is required. With the guidance of your local shaman, you must make a terrific noise to distract the monster from its meal.

Jayawardhana and I drove to the spot where the solar ritual had taken place that morning. Hundreds of people stood in a crescent arc around the shaman, who was dressed in an impressive head-to-toe cloak of multicolored yak-hair dreadlocks, reminding me of the Snuffleupagus. The shaman's assistants seemed to be keeping a slow clock with a drum and gong. People kneeled in trios to receive a protective blessing that consisted of a mouthful of alcohol spit on their heads and a lash on their backs with a leather cat-o'-nine-tails.

A weird wind picked up as the shaman circled the shrine faster and faster, making me dizzy just watching. Then it happened. I felt the shadow on my skin even before I looked up to see a bizarre porthole of night with Mercury, Venus, and Mars clearly visible. People would have probably tripped on rocks had it not been for the handy bonfire lit by one of the shaman's assistants, because now everyone was on their feet, hooting, clapping, banging, and shouting at Rah. I must admit that I didn't make a single sound during the 2 minutes of totality. I was stunned by the spectacle.

As the shaman foretold, the gambit worked. Rah lost his appetite and released the sun, which, over the course of another hour, grew plump, hot, and round like normal. We drove back to the hill in time to see the final kiss through the telescope. Everyone there, particularly Gazeas, looked so happy and spent that I coined a new eclipse-chasing term: “clipsgasm.” The Mongolian throat-singers all lit cigarettes.

Just minutes later, the colossal shadow reached Jinta, China, where Science's Beijing correspondent, Richard Stone, was observing with another team of scientists. If you have doubts about the emotional impact of the totality, listen to my interview with him a week later.

Missed the show? Don't worry, there's a solar eclipse somewhere in the world every year. Eclipse chasers are already gearing up for 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, when the moon will blot out the sun from India to Japan on 22 July. The Marshall Islands will be a perfect place to park a telescope.

But for me, the defining moment of the experience came long after the eclipse was done. We stopped at a ger for lunch and chatted with a family about the eclipse. They had rushed outside and beat pans for the sun's release. Gazeas pulled out his digital camera and showed them his photo of the totality. I'll never forget the expression on the face of the little Mongolian girl before she dashed out of the ger in terror. That must be the real thing, the experience of seeing an eclipse unbuffered by scientific knowledge. In a way, I'm jealous. I'll have to go eclipse chasing with my future children before they learn astronomy. That is, of course, if Rah doesn't finally eat the sun by then.

Multimedia: Audio Slideshow

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