Sunday 5 April 2015

Eclipses and Expresses - from spotters guides and planispheres to mobiles and app technology

I will likely remember the dates of March 20th and March 21st 2015 for many years to come! Two exciting events happened in the space of two days relating to two of my favourite interests, starting with the Partial Solar Eclipse and then watching the steam-hauled Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express in action along the Durham Coast Line. To see and enjoy both events, I didn't have to go very far from home!

Both astronomy and railways are often described, and even now still sometimes stereotyped, as 'Aspergic' pursuits. For me as a person with Asperger's Syndrome who enjoys these pursuits, albeit in not as obsessive a way as I did when younger, they go much further than their ability to be the 'special interest' of just a few people. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I do still find it easy to become immersed in their depth and detail. But they both also have visual appeals that conjure up different feelings and even emotions. Astronomy has its mystique with the appeal of venturing into the unknown while railways, especially steam, has a nostalgic and romantic appeal. What they both share though is a sense of wonder we can get like a child seeing something as if for the first time, inducing feelings of childhood innocence, enabling them to capture the imagination of the public.

The Sun 'smiles' through the clouds 
Despite cloudy conditions in much of the UK, millions took time out to experience a partial eclipse of the Sun, where in the northernmost parts of Scotland the Moon covered up to 97 per cent of the Sun. I was fortunate enough to get a good view of it from Roker Beach in Sunderland. As had been forecast, the sky over Sunderland was cloudy to start off with but gradually began to thin just enough for the Sun to shine through as the Moon began to move across. As well as with my interest in Astronomy, watching the eclipse also turned out to be a fascinating way to practice mindfulness. While concentrating on the interaction of the Sun and Moon, when holding this in awareness, I also felt that I was able to notice it's effect on the sky, down to where I was standing. The surrounding clouds darkened very slightly. Though it was as obvious a 'blackout' as those in the line of totality which passed through the Faroe Islands and Svalbard high up in the Arctic Circle would have experienced, I still felt that I could notice degrees of initial darkening and later brightening effects as the Moon eventually completed its passage across the Sun.

Like many thousands, I had made the journey to Cornwall in August of 1999 to experience the last time a total Solar Eclipse would be visible in the UK until the year 2090. As many of those who went to Cornwall to see the event may likely remember, after three days of clear skies, it clouded over during the moment of totality, but experiencing a minute-and-a-half of natural blackout was quite an experience. Obviously, with technology available we are able to forecast when future eclipses will take place, but in ancient times, as such a natural blackout could happen suddenly, it must have been a huge shock for it to go dark for up to two minutes, as well as a big step outside one's comfort zone. that would likely have been based on the day starting with the sun rising and finishing with its setting. Some historical events have shown that such steps outside of its comfort zone can have interesting effects on humanity, including bringing peace! This famously occurred way back in 585 BC during a battle between the Medes and Lydians in present-day Turkey, when the two armies stopped fighting and agreed a truce. For animals, it is a big step outside their comfort zones as when it turns dark during an eclipse. While many farm animals start looking for a sheltered place to sleep thinking it is night time and birds stop singing and look for higher perches, nocturnal wildlife, including owls and bats, may suddenly become alert!

As advised, I viewed the eclipse using solar filters, which I had kept from the 1999 Total Eclipse. The filters sharpened up the image of the crescent sun very effectively. During an eclipse, it really comes 'home' to you as to where you are in the Solar System, as, with clear skies, you can visually see the planetary system of Earth and Moon in motion, including how fast orbital speeds are when seeing the Moon move across the Sun. In the Solar System, only on Earth can such a phenomenon occur as the celestial bodies involved are of the right size and orbit at the right distances to create the optical illusion where the Sun and Moon look like they are almost the same size in the sky, despite in real terms one being thousands of times bigger than the other! Though we can calculate when and where such phenomena will occur, what we can't be quite sure of are weather conditions on Earth during the time and place of an eclipse. Fortunately, on this occasion I got to see the Sun smile on what was also International Day of Happiness, which made me very happy!

No. 62005 heads the Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express
The second experience over this period of two days that also made me very happy was the steam-hauled Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express in action passing Easington Colliery in County Durham. Readers of this blog will be familiar with how much I enjoy actually being on a mainline steam-hauled train journey, but really other then when the train is going around a long curve, though you hear it, you don't see the steam locomotive in action when on the train. Featuring former London and North Eastern Railway engines Class K4 2-6-0 No.61994 The Great Marquess and Class B1 4-6-0 No.62005 in a push-pull arrangement, one pulling from the front and one pushing at the back, the Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express provided a fantastic site for onlookers who had gathered to see it in action.

Unlike with modern rail traction, where the motors are inside or underneath the locomotive or unit as they are in the sprinter units and diesel-electric freight locomotives that passed by as I waited for the steam to arrive, when seeing a steam locomotive in action, especially if its cylinders are on the outside, you can see its workings in action, seeing the steam exhaust as it pushes the pistons around. Not to mention, if you have a good view of the stretch of track on which a steam-hauled train is running, you can see it coming from afar with its 'head' of smoke! While the popular postcard image of a steam train passing through a scenic setting pleases many an eye, from observation of the head of steam and smoke and hearing the sound, the more experienced watching eyes and ears can tell how hard the locomotive is working from the more smoke and noise it is making, and may almost 'feel' the gradient profile of the line.

What was especially great about seeing both an astronomical and railway-related event in the space of two days was that I didn't have to go very far from home at all to see them. Quite often, when we think about what we would like to see and do, our attention tends to focus on places and events far away that we overlook what is closer to home. Ironically, subjects that involve far away worlds and long distance journeys brought me closer to home. As well as seeing Roker beach in a different light, I also saw some of the Durham Coast Heritage Trail in Easington. Being able to enjoy such pastimes close to home adds to its accessibility, while their simplicity allows them to be enjoyed by many, rather than them being confined to any stereotypes commonly applied to those that do enjoy them, including people with Asperger's Syndrome like myself.

George Philip planishpere and night sky guide
Though in reality human fascination with astronomy goes back almost to the dawn of humanity itself while railway enthusiasm is almost as old as railways themselves, where growth in participation in Astronomy and Railway Enthusiasm is often attributed to is in their post war 'booms'. Largely perceived as a 'hobby for the rich' before the Second World War, with the availability of mass-produced and affordable telescopes together with the dawn of the space age with the launch of Sputnik (1957) and Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space (1961), public participation in astronomy grew. This led to the availability of publications for beginners, including George Philip's Signpost to the Stars and starter packs including star maps and planispheres, adjustable start charting instruments that display the stars and constellations visible in the night sky at a given time and date.

Publications from the Ian Allan ABC series
Meanwhile, the postwar era also saw the nationalisation of Britain's railways (1948). With this came the introduction of a national numbering system for Britain's locomotives which in turn, saw the publication of spotters handbooks, including the Ian Allan ABC series. The popularity of this series saw a whole generation of enthusiasts get to know the major railway junctions and centres throughout Britain. At the same time, Britain's railways were going through major changes with the phasing out of steam and the Beeching cuts. Not wanting to see their favourite steam locomotives being broken up, the spirit of rail enthusiasm contributed to the preservation movement and the development of steam heritage railways, enjoyed by many today.

So many night sky and railway related past times most likely started out with the 'apprenticeships' of finding appropriate spots to view the stars or watch trains in action. With today's technology, stargazers are able to find out what is visible in the night sky with mobile apps such as Google Sky Map and Star Walk and railway enthusiasts are able to find out when and where steam-hauled charter trains are running through websites such as, while Satnav technology enables one to find and plan a journey to a good vantage point.

For me though, the most enjoyable part of these two subjects has been the correspondence with others who share enjoyment of them with me, which has largely been enabled by interaction via social media. The power and popularity of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, enables those who enjoy these pursuits to be constantly updated as to events and also to connect with others who seek similar enjoyment from them, and may very well see future generations obtain similar enjoyment from them.