Syzygy: Stories of celestial alignment

In this week's episode, we present two stories of astronomy colliding with family.

Part 1: Bryony Tilsley and her husband are planning a local astronomy event when their family undergoes a big change.

Bryony Tilsley, along with her husband Rob, is a founder of Dartmoor Skies, a U.K. charity that shares the beauty of astronomy with anyone who wants to experience it. She studied writing and choreography at Dartington College of Arts so she loves to bring art and science together. She finds stargazing therapeutic and would like to build an observatory on Dartmoor. She has lots of books, two cats and a dog.

Part 2: Eclipse chaser David Baron discovers the real magic behind a total solar eclipse.

Share David's story>>>

David Baron is a science journalist, broadcaster, and the author of American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. An avid eclipse chaser, David has witnessed five total solar eclipses in such disparate locales as Indonesia, Australia, and the Faroe Islands. He has spent most of his career in public radio, as science correspondent for NPR, science reporter for Boston’s WBUR, and science editor for PRI’s The World. You can find him online at www.american-eclipse.com.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Bryony Tilsley

Hello! Hi! All right. Okay, so I’m going to talk a little bit about, um our journey setting up our organization. We are a small organization. We are in our early stages, but it’s something that feels like it’s growing and it’s going in a very exciting direction.

The reason why we started this is because basically my husband’s a nerd. He claims that he isn’t a nerd, but I’d just like to point out that he’s the chap over there with “Pi” on his T-shirt. That’s the number not the food group, so there [laughs]. He’s definitely a nerd. And it’s a lot about he’s kinda dragged me into that, slightly reluctantly.

One of his big loves is astronomy. So, a few years ago, myself and his family decided to come together and buy him a telescope. And my very first outing with him onto Dartmoor with this telescope was in a dark, cold carpark. I don’t know if anybody here knows Dartmoor. There’s a reservoir called Venford Reservoir; you drive past that, you go over a bridge, first carpark on the right-hand side.

There we were, him fiddling around, trying to get his telescope set up. Me, wrapped up in a pink, thick coat, going, “Oh my God, what have I done? What have I unleashed?”

And he gets the telescope set up and we look at a couple of things, and then he gets Jupiter in the viewfinder. And I’m having a look through this eyepiece, and there’s this planet, and it’s stripey, and I can see specks of light around it, which are the moons. And I can see it moving out of view of this telescope, and I just have this sensation of being on a planet that’s revolving. You don’t get that, you don’t feel the Earth spinning. You know that it is, but you don’t feel it. And that’s the first time in my life I’ve ever had the sensation of being on a planet that’s actually revolving and feeling that you’re part of something that’s so much bigger.

So this kind of nerdy journey starts to unfold, and eventually we decide that the thing to do is to go up to Kielder, where there’s an observatory. It’s beautiful. It’s in a dark-sky park. It’s really different – I mean we were really lucky on Dartmoor, but in Kielder, it’s -- you can see so much more in the sky. And this observatory is wonderful. They’ve got this amazing facility, and their energy and their generosity with it is fantastic and we book them for later events. The thing I really like about this is that – and we stayed in a converted church, I kinda felt like there was this nice little parallel between being in a church and doing nerdy science stuff in the evening.

And it’s a long drive back from Kielder down to Devon. It’s a ten-hour journey. And on the way back on that journey I’m sort of talking to him. “Why don’t you go to stuff like this in Devon? There’s nowhere on Dartmoor that does astronomy, which seems mad. It’s this amazing dark sky. Why isn’t anyone getting to enjoy it?”

And we kind of realize that actually what we’ve been doing with this telescope that we’ve got in our garage, on a very small scale what Kielder has been doing. We’ve got this telescope, we take it to friends and family, we set it up in their garden, we show them things in the sky, and they love it. We start to think, Well, why don’t we do something for the public?

So, in this ten-hour journey we start to plan what we’re going to do. We decide we’re going to do an event about Saturn. And we start kinda thinking about the things that we need to do, so we get home and we start picking a venue, and we start building a website, and we kinda do our social media thing and we start telling people what we’re gonna do, and the response is really amazing – people are really interested, they want to go. We start selling tickets, and it kinda feels like this thing’s starting to unfold.

And it’s kinda weird because both Rob and I come from an arts background and actually it’s quite tricky getting into the arts. It constantly feels like you’re having to fight against things, whereas this is just, like, people love it. They just want to be there.

So, we’ve been organizing things for a few weeks. We’re actually back with our family, visiting them in West Sussex. And I’ve got this glass of wine in my hand, and this little thought pops into my head. It’s like “Bryony, when was your last period?” And I’m like, “Oh, God, when was my last period?” And I kinda put this glass down, like, “Oh.”

So later on in the evening, Rob and I are like in his dad’s office on the sofa bed, and we’re like, “Ooh, my God!” and it’s really exciting and also very, very scary. We get home, I take a pregnancy test. It’s positive, and we’re like, “Oh, my God, what’re we going to do? Are we going to be parents? This is terrifying, why should we be responsible for a child? Umm, this can’t end well.”

So we carry on, organizing our event, and the only real difference is now I’m napping like a pro and really watching what I’m eating. I’m doing lots of research on the internet at the same time, going, “Right, don’t eat too much tuna, and don’t do this and don’t do that.” We’re taking it very seriously.

It gets to two days before our event, and this pain crosses across my belly and I’m like, “Mmm, this isn’t good.” I go to the hospital, I have a scan, they confirm, baby has not survived. It’s like this big, and the first time I’m meeting it I’m saying good-bye to it. ‘Cos it was tiny -- and then there’s lots these decisions you have to make and you don’t have any control over this decision, really, because it’s a decision, the decision you want to make is not an option. It’s not on the table. You just want to say, “Please give me back my baby.” 

And the other decision that we have to make is whether we carry on with the event that we planned. And Rob says to me, “Well, it’s down to you. If you want to do it, we’ll go ahead.” And I don’t know, maybe it’s this stubborn streak in me, but I’m like, “No, we’re gonna do this.” I think partly because I need something to distract me, but also because… I don’t like letting people down. It just seemed really daft that we planned this thing and suddenly we just wouldn’t do it. And we had friends coming down, so we’re like, “No, we’re gonna go ahead, we’re gonna do this.”

It’s not easy. I’m munching down painkillers and we’re both feeling really heartbroken, and actually what we really want to do is just kinda get into bed and fling a duvet over our heads and go, “No, actually, we don’t want to do that.”

But we do it, we do the event and on this day, I’m baking cakes and welcoming friends. And we get there and we set everything up, and it goes really well! People love it. You know, we show them Saturn, we show them Jupiter, we show them amazing nebulae and galaxies, and they love it and we have this amazing warm response to it.

And then right at the very end, the telescope is -- the very first one that we bought Rob is up – and I have a look through it. It’s actually set on Jupiter, and there it is – being beautiful and amazing, as Jupiter is -- and I just see it move out of view, and I just have this sensation that I’m anchored and it’s fine. I have physical scientific evidence that the world is still spinning, and if the world is still spinning, then I can definitely carry on and that’s totally fine, too.

One of the things that I find really interesting about astronomy is that I feel like it has a real therapeutic quality, and I think that’s something that personally I’ve experienced and I know that Rob’s experienced, too. If you’ve had a stressful day, and you’re feeling really like “ERRR,” and you look through the telescope and look at something that’s millions of miles away, it kind of puts everything into perspective in this really beautiful way. And I think that’s what happened to me on that day when I looked through that telescope and I saw Jupiter and I saw it moving out of view. I was like, “Okay, that’s fine.”

The other thing that I’ve learned from astronomy is actually really amazing things can come out of total chaos. Our solar system came out of total chaos and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful. And we had a moment of chaos – something collapsed. This huge kinda cloud of chaos came into our lives. Sometimes you don’t have much control over what you build out of it, but you can build something else and it can be amazing. What we’ve been building over the last year isn’t necessarily what we were expecting to build, but we’re still really proud of it, and we feel like there’s a long way to go.

It’s kind of this idea of legacy. We’ve got these really amazing options. We want to turn Dartmoor into a dark-sky park, we want an observatory in Dartmoor. Whether we would be here if we had had our baby, I don’t know. I think we’d be on a very different path, but nonetheless, this is the path that we’re walking. This is the world that we’re building, and we have to enjoy it and appreciate it, even if it wasn’t quite what we were expecting.

Part 2: David Baron

Back in the 1990s, I was a science correspondent for NPR. And in the course of working on a story, I got some advice from an astronomer that truly changed my life. Now the story was about an eclipse, a partial solar eclipse that was gonna cross the United States. And the astronomer, Jay Pasachoff from Williams College, told me about the eclipse, how to observe it, and what made it interesting. But then he pointed out that you know, a partial solar eclipse is nothing compared to a total solar eclipse which is a completely different experience. And as he described it, a total solar eclipse is the most awe-inspiring sight in all of nature. And so the advice he gave me was this. He said, “Before you die, you owe it to yourself to experience a total solar eclipse.”

Well, that was pretty bold language and I took it seriously. And the thing about total eclipses is that if you wait for one to come to you, you’re going to be waiting a very long time. Any given point on Earth will experience total eclipse about once every four hundred years. But if you’re willing to travel, you don’t have to wait quite that long. So I did some research and I discovered that a few years later, in 1998, a total eclipse was gonna cross the Caribbean. And a total eclipse is only visible within a narrow band about a hundred miles wide called “the path of totality,” and that’s the zone that the moon’s shadow races along across the Earth. And the path of totality in February of 1998 was going to cross Aruba. So I talked to my husband, and we thought, well, Aruba’s not a bad place to be in February anyway, so we made plans to go enjoy the sun and see what happens during that brief time when the sun went away.

Well, February 26 found us on the beach behind the Hyatt Regency, waiting for the show to begin. And there were lots of folks out there, people with telescopes and binoculars who really knew what they were doing. We had our little cardboard eclipse glasses with really dark lenses that enable you to actually look at the sun safely because obviously without protection, you’ll ruin your eyesight. And we were waiting for the show to begin, and a total solar eclipse begins as a partial eclipse, as the moon very slowly makes its way in front of the sun. So we were watching with our eclipse glasses, and you could first see just this little notch in edge of the sun, and then the notch grew larger and larger, and after maybe a half hour now the sun looks sort of like a crescent moon, like a thick crescent moon. And it was all kind of interesting, but nothing particularly spectacular. The day was still bright, if no one had told us what was going on we wouldn’t have noticed anything.

Well, about ten minutes before the onset of the total eclipse, things started to get weird. So first just the quality of the daylight seemed different, colors seemed different. A cool breeze started to blow on this tropical island. And the shadows were different -- shadows had gotten really sharp. And it was if someone had turned up the contrast knob on television. And we looked under the palm trees where the sunlight was dappling the ground and instead of little spots of light, there were crescents because the spaces between the leaves were acting like pinhole cameras and were projecting onto the sand the image of the crescent sun. And then I looked over the water and I could see offshore the running lights on boats so clearly it was getting dark. I hadn’t realized how dark it was getting. And then very soon it really was getting dark, and it was almost like my eyesight was going. And then all of a sudden the lights went out. Well, at this, the beach just erupted with cheers. And we took off our eclipse glasses because at this moment, and only at this time, during the total phase of a total eclipse, it is safe to look at the sun with the naked eye. And we looked up, and I was just completely dumbstruck.

You see at this time I was in my mid-thirties, and I’d been living on Earth long enough to know what the sky looks like. I’d seen blues skies, and I’d seen gray skies, and I’d seen starry skies, and angry skies, and I’d seen pink skies at sunrise, but this, this was a sky that I had never seen. At first there were the colors. So overhead, it was a deep purple gray, like twilight, but on the horizon it was orange. It was like sunset three-hundred-sixty degrees. And overhead, in the twilight, bright stars and planets had come out. So, so there was Venus, and there was Mercury, and there was Jupiter, and they were all in a line, and along that line was this thing. This just glorious, bewildering thing. It was, it was this like wreath, woven of silvery thread, and it was just shimmering out there in space. And this is the sun’s outer atmosphere, the solar corona. And pictures just don’t do it justice, ’cause it’s not just a halo around the sun, or a ring, it is this textured, frilly object. It’s like it’s made of strands of silk. And it looks nothing like the sun, but I knew that this was our sun.

So I could see the sun, and I could see the planets, and I could see how the planets revolve around the sun, and it was as if I had stepped outside of the solar system, and I was looking back at creation. And, it was like it all made sense all of a sudden. And I was looking up, and then I look over at my husband, Paul, like “Can you believe what we’re looking at?” It was just the most moving, spiritual experience. And for the first time in my life, I felt truly, utterly connected to the universe, like there was nothing between me and everything else. And I think this is what they call Nirvana.

Well, I was in this state for one-hundred-seventy-four seconds, under three minutes. And then all of a sudden, it was over. The sun came back out. The blue sky returned. The corona and the planets were gone. We had to put our eclipse glasses on, and it was as if I had briefly stepped through the back of the wardrobe into this fantasy world and now I just been yanked back to reality. And I was, I was hooked. I wanted to experience it again.

Well, the next year, a total eclipse was gonna cross Europe. So I made plans to go to Munich. Convinced my aunt and uncle to meet me there, and again for three minutes I got to enjoy this bliss in the shadow of the moon. But unfortunately, total eclipses often travel to very inconvenient places – the middle of the ocean, Antarctica, Africa – and I had other priorities. Eclipse chasing is expensive, too. So I decided that I would set this aside and focus on more practical priorities. So that was my decision for about ten years, until I reached my mid-forties.

Now to explain, when I was in college, my mother died. She was forty-eight years old. She died of breast cancer. And I knew that that was young, that was young, but when I was in my early twenties, I didn’t understand really just how young that was. But now, as I was in my mid-forties, and approaching the oldest age my mother ever attained, it was difficult for me in many ways. I felt guilty that it looked like I was going to live longer than she did, and I grieved for her all over again. I just felt her loss, and I really understood how much of life she was denied. And it made me reflect on my own life – what is important to me? How do I want to spend my time? I hope that I get to live a nice long life, but that’s not guaranteed, and even if I do, how do I want to spend those days that I have? And I reflected back on my life, and I kept coming back to those three minutes in Aruba – that that was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had. And I decided that as long as I’m still on Earth, I’m gonna go chase eclipses. And whatever it takes, I’m gonna go to where the moon’s shadow is. Even if no one comes with me, I’m going.

So I did. In 2012, I headed off to Australia. In 2015 I was in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. And it was still exciting, but it didn’t quite feel the same and then it really struck me hardest last March when I was in Indonesia. So once again I was on a beach, watching as the sun went away and the corona came out. And at the end of it, when the total eclipse was over, instead of having that sense I had of deep connection, I just felt utterly and deeply alone because here I was in Indonesia and everyone I loved was on the other side of the planet. And I came to realize that a big part of what made that experience in Aruba so special – it wasn’t just what I was witnessing overhead, it was who I was with here on Earth… which brings me to 2017.

And this, this is the year I’ve been waiting for since that time in Aruba because this August, for the first time in thirty-eight years, a total solar eclipse will cross the entire continental United States. The path of totality goes from Oregon to South Carolina and it crosses Wyoming, which is just north of where I live in Colorado. And so I’ve got my plans all worked out. On August 21st, I will be in the Tetons at ten thousand feet, on a mountaintop, looking west towards Idaho to try to glimpse the moon’s shadow as it races in. And I will be up there with my husband, and my father, and my stepmother, and my brothers, and their families, and my aunt and uncle and cousins. And we’re gonna look as this great shaft of darkness comes down from outer space, and races towards us at sixteen-hundred miles an hour, and a cool wind will kick up, and the stars and planets will appear, and then the lights will go out, and together, we’ll take off our eclipse glasses and we’ll all look up. Thank you.