Eclipse to darken NW China, a week before Olympics

JIAYUGUAN, China (Reuters) – A full solar eclipse will sweep across the Arctic and Siberia before ending in western China, where it will kick off the month in which Beijing hosts the Olympic Games.

The eclipse was due to begin in Canada at 0804 GMT, track across Greenland and eastern Russia and end around sunset on Friday to the east of Xi’an, China‘s ancient imperial capital.

Eclipses were dangerous omens for ancient Chinese astronomers, but this one comes exactly a week before the torch is lit in Beijing for the opening ceremony of Games designed to restore China’s pride and showcase its achievements.

Planeloads of cheerful foreign eclipse chasers converged on Jiayuguan, in Gansu Province, and in the hot deserts of Xinjiang, to watch the sky go dark and a halo wreathe the hidden sun.

“I’ve come all the way from California for this. It’s going to be my 11th eclipse, I try to see them all,” said Dave Balch, a cancer care advisor wearing an eclipse T-shirt.

Scientists studying the sun’s surface prepared for a brief glimpse of the faint outer corona that is normally obscured by the sun’s brightness.

“Nowadays, the equipment works well enough that we do have time to look up at the eclipse,” said Jay Pasachoff, a professor at Williams College who traveled to Novosibirsk, Russia for his 47th eclipse.

“It’s very dramatic and awe-inspiring when the darkness suddenly comes. That’s why thousands of tourists go to see.”

Hundreds of millions of people won’t have to go any further than their front doors on July 22, 2009, when the next solar eclipse will cross India and northern Bangladesh, then run along the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Shanghai in the most populated path ever.


Chinese hope that the Olympics will usher in a new era where China is once more as modern, wealthy and important as it was more than 10 centuries ago, when imperial astronomers were among the world’s best scientists and camel caravans carried riches along the pass guarded by Jiayuguan.

Chinese astronomers in the state of Lu, present day Shandong, carefully recorded solar eclipses that can be dated as far back as 720 BC. Earlier than that, inscriptions on oracle bones asked what eclipses might portend.

Eclipses were sometimes linked to the subsequent deaths of emperors and empresses, said F. Richard Stephenson, professor emeritus at Durham University in northern England.

Chinese astronomers understood what caused eclipses and could predict them very accurately by AD 300, but superstitious courtiers and peasants still banged drums to scare away the dragon they thought was eating the sun.

People still find their lives can be touched by eclipses, but the modern view is a little more philosophic.

“I was born during an eclipse, and I have always felt that’s made my life more fortunate,” said a driver named Zhou. “But I didn’t turn out to have any special genius, so I can’t say the eclipse left any mark of fate or destiny on me.”



~ by Mike Strife on August 2, 2008.

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