Stephen McGinty: Grey sky saves Glasgow’s sight

Glasgow's grey skies meant the eclipse was visible only briefly during breaks in the cloud. Picture: SWNS
Glasgow's grey skies meant the eclipse was visible only briefly during breaks in the cloud. Picture: SWNS
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Glasgow is spared the possible health risks of watching an eclipse by the simple ruse of being, as usual, covered by cloud at the key moment in science’s big showpiece, writes Stephen McGinty

Britain was to witness the first spring total eclipse of the sun for almost 300 years and the climatic conditions in Glasgow were perfect. A thick grey film of cloud, like a light-resistant prophylactic, covered up the sky, utterly obscuring the sun and blacking out its brief encounter with the moon.

In Edinburgh ' properly equipped ' viewers could watch it in all its glory. Picture: SWNS

In Edinburgh ' properly equipped ' viewers could watch it in all its glory. Picture: SWNS

I’d like to think that this had been quietly arranged by the Scottish Government’s elite cadre of health and safety executives on the grounds that, if ever there was a city whose populace would decide to set aside the colander and peel off the special cardboard glasses and collectively risk a quick “swatch” at the sun’s swift lunar embrace, it would be Glasgow.

This, after all, is the only city in Britain whose celebrations to mark the Royal Wedding required the attendance of mounted police and whose citizens are said to have at least one close family member whose last words were: “Watch this!”

I noted that Edinburgh, a city whose citizens are perceived as more likely to adhere to rules, guidelines and health and safety suggestions, was permitted a rather unobscured view of the celestial duet and that, for the moment at least, their accident and emergency units appear uncluttered by a conga line of the blind leading the blind.

As a resident of the “Dear Green Place”, I found myself in the hours leading up to the eclipse pondering if I would be able to resist taking a quick unprotected peek.

On one level this is madness. Experts had repeatedly warned that looking straight at the sun during a lunar eclipse could seriously damage the human eye, so why would anyone take the risk, but there was a childish part of my brain that kept tugging me towards imminent blindness by arguing that if people glance up at the sun every day, why should it be more dangerous when it’s dimmed by the presence of the moon?

Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, lifted the decision, like a loaded gun, from my hand and set it up on a high shelf.

In my back garden, the clouds stretched across the horizon and were the colour of slushy snow. A faint glow attested to the presence, somewhere above, of a fiery ball whose orbit was to imminently mirror that of the moon, but from my fixed point on our spinning Earth there would be no prospect of gazing up at Baily’s Beads, the bright glimmers of light on the very edge of the moon where the sun’s light peeks through the lunar mountain ranges. Prior to yesterday morning I had never heard of Baily’s Beads but Brian Cox told me about it (all right he told millions of us on BBC1’s Eclipse Live).

My wife was also peering up at the grey lid that hovered over the city, like a more benign, protective spacecraft than those in Independence Day, and she insisted that it was getting progressively darker.

“I don’t like this,” she said. “It feels quite strange. Shhh. Listen. You can’t hear the birds any more. I don’t like this at all.”

After a minute or two of nervously waiting under a dim sky, she declared: “Right, if I’d lived 5,000 years ago, I’d definitely be looking for someone to sacrifice right about now.”

As there was nothing to actually see in the sky above Glasgow I went back indoors to watch the TV and was comforted to discover that there was nothing to actually see in the sky above Tørshavn on the Faroe Islands, which was blanketed with clouds, as was Lewis where a crowd had gathered around the 5,000-year-old standing stones to listen to an archaeologist – who had been asked by the BBC to describe the current feeling – say: “It’s just weird.”

In Leicester a group of school children had tied a camera to a hot air balloon in the hope of seeing live pictures from an altitude of 30,000 feet but it wasn’t working properly.

The only person who did appear to have a decent view of the whole affair was in a small private plane circling high above the Faroe Islands who beamed live pictures back to Britain for Professor Cox and Dara Ó Briain to get rather excited over. Dara explained that at moments like this we were able to see “the workings of our clockwork universe” but try as I might, I just couldn’t get worked up about this rather irregular natural phenomenon.

I was intrigued by the stories that have accompanied previous lunar eclipses. It’s interesting how different ancient cultures imagined that different characters were taking bites out of the sun during these brief “dark times”, with the Vietnamese imagining the sun being gulped up by a giant toad and the Vikings believing that the sun was dragged behind a chariot and was chased by wolves who occasionally succeeded in taking a bite or two.

Yet the Hindus of India won hands down with their tale of the recalcitrant deity Rahu who was decapitated by the other gods for the heinous crime of eating ambrosia and took his revenge by devouring the sun; however without a torso or stomach in which to digest it, the sun would fall out the bottom of his neck and continue to illuminate all our lives.

Then there was the tale of Christopher Columbus who, apparently, bullied an indigenous tribe into providing food and water for his crew after insisting that if they refused he would darken the sun, which – as he was aware of an impending eclipse on 29 February 1504 – he duly made “happen”, terrifying the natives into submission.

While I can see how terrifying the phenomenon may have been for the ancient people unaware of its cause, I’m just not quite sure how excited we should feel about it today. Yes, I accept that the fact that I didn’t actually see even a glimpse of the total eclipse may well have clouded my views and that had I gazed upon its full wonder (suitably begoggled), this article may have had a quite different tone, and quite a few more spelling mistakes had I watched without protective goggles, but I wouldn’t have wagered money on this.

The moon passes across the face of the sun. Is it really such a big deal? It happens relatively regularly and can be witnessed in three different locations in the world over the next decade or so.

I know that for some people it may have given a sense of wonder and prompted questions about our place in the universe, but our place in the universe hasn’t changed, and isn’t likely to change unless we are amongst that small elect suicidal band who hope to die on Mars in the next 30 years.

I’m sorry if this sounds like a case of sour grapes but I’d rather we got a little less excited about lunar eclipses and a little bit more concerned about the prospect of being wiped out by a meteor.

I’ve always wondered why people mock those who raise concerns about our lack of preparation given the number of times we’ve been struck in the past – it is, after all, the very reason why the moon is orbiting us. Perhaps we’ve simply been blinded by the notion of our own permanence and the belief that the sun, though it may darken, will never truly set on us all.