Magazine article The New Yorker

Totally

Magazine article The New Yorker

Totally

Article excerpt

Totally

On Monday, people in a seventy-mile-wide swath of the United States will witness one of nature's great spectacles: the total solar eclipse. The event will attract swarms of eclipse chasers--or, as some of them prefer to be called, "umbraphiles," derived from "umbra," the technical term for the darkest part of the moon's shadow. New York City will not be a prime destination; here, the moon will obscure only seventy-two per cent of the sun. But the city is distinguished nevertheless: three men currently claiming the record for the most total solar eclipses seen (thirty-three) are all New Yorkers.

"I'm not out for record-setting. It's just something that happens," Glenn Schneider, one of the triumvirate, said by phone, from Tucson, Arizona, where he is an astronomer at the Steward Observatory. Eclipses and the sun are not his field, just a passion. "It will change your life," he said of viewing a total solar eclipse. "I warn people about that. When I give talks about eclipses, my first slide is like the label on a cigarette pack--a warning of addiction."

Schneider, who grew up in the Bronx, saw his first total solar eclipse in 1970, when he was fourteen. He took a bus down to Greenville, North Carolina, with the Amateur Observers' Society of New York to see it. "I had prepared exactly what I was going to do for every second of that totality," he recalled. "I knew it was going to be two minutes and fifty-four seconds. I set up telescopes and cameras and had it all scripted, spent months practicing." Then the moment came. "The word 'mesmerized' understates," Schneider said. "I couldn't move. I just stood there, with the binoculars hanging around my neck."

Jay Pasachoff, a solar astronomer at Williams College, claims to have witnessed more eclipses, total or otherwise, than anyone else alive: sixty-five. He, too, is from the Bronx. He saw his first total eclipse during his freshman year at Harvard, in 1959, from an airplane off the Massachusetts coast. "It was beautiful," he said. "But seeing one from an airplane is nothing compared with what it's like being outdoors."

John Beattie, a proofreader in Manhattan, also tied for the record, declined to be interviewed. Schneider said, "Despite being an extroverted eclipse chaser, John eschews press notoriety and is a rather private person. …

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