365daysDate: July 18, 2009

Title: The Solar Eclipse of 1963 and Other Reminiscences


Podcaster: Peter Sosna


Description: Peter Sosna remembers his childhood interest in astronomy, his first telescope, and the solar eclipse of 1963.

Bio: Peter Sosna was born in 1954 and grew up in Westport, Connecticut. Since 1977 he has been a professional magician living in the Boston area. He has a 9 year old son named Wilson, whose outer space adventure can be seen here:

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by a person who wishes to stay anonymous.


Hi, I’m Peter Sosna. When I was growing up I had quite an interest in science. I loved going to science museums, particularly planetarium shows. My parents bought me a Spitz Junior Planetarium projector, which for many years was one of my most treasured toys. It would project the stars on the ceiling of any dark room and could be adjusted to accurately display the stars for any latitude in the northern hemisphere at any time of the year. I spent hours giving planetarium shows to myself and learning the constellations. I sure wish I still had that thing. I know there are other home planetariums sold these days, but I don’t think any of them are as nice as that one was.

After quite a bit of begging and pleading, my parents, for my 9th birthday, got me the best birthday present I ever received: A telescope. I could hardly wait for the sun to set so we could try it out.

As I recall, the first night we spent most of the time looking at the moon. There was an open field next to our house and my father and I spent countless evenings there looking at the stars and planets although one of my most memorable nights out there didn’t involve the telescope.

My father had just gotten one of the first electronic watches, the Bulova Accutron . It kept time with a little tuning fork; if you held the watch to your ear you could hear a tiny high pitched F sharp. Every month Natural History magazine had a star chart for the month and a list of celestial events. That evening we went out because, according to the magazine, we would be able to see a satellite pass overhead. The magazine also said that the satellite would pass into the earth’s shadow and seem to vanish and gave the exact time, to the second, that it would happen. As I watched the satellite my father counted down the seconds and at the precise time given the satellite disappeared. We were both pretty impressed with accuracy of that watch.

I remember my dad pointing the telescope at the Pleiades, a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus. I was familiar with the Pleiades from my planetarium and knew they were known as the seven sisters, because, to the naked eye, it is a group of seven stars. But through my little telescope I could see there were dozens and dozens of them. The cluster actually contains over 1000 stars.

Sometimes I wouldn’t even go outside with my telescope; I would just set it up in the living room and point it out the window at the sky. That’s how I first saw the rings of Saturn.

Of course, during the day there wasn’t much to look at with my telescope. There was the sun of course, but I know better that to try to look at it directly without the proper filter. I don’t quite remember how I was able to figure it out, but I did discover a way to view the sun. I found that if I pointed the telescope directly at the sun, using the shadow of the telescope on the floor of the living room, and focusing the eye piece, I could project a clear image of the sun onto the living room ceiling! I remember my mother and I watching the sun on the ceiling and being able to actually see sunspots.

My dad did eventually get a solar filter for my telescope. He got it because of an event that would happen that summer, Saturday July 20th, 1963. On that day there would be a near total eclipse of the sun and we wanted to be able to see it through my telescope.

If you are listening to this podcast I’m sure you are well aware that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly between the earth and the sun, casting it’s shadow on the earth. This usually happens about twice a year, each eclipse occurring across a different area of the earth. Eclipses can occur up to 5 times a year, but that’s pretty rare. The last time that happened was in 1935, and it won’t happen again until 2206.

To see a total eclipse, where the moon completely blocks the sun, you need to be in the umbra, the moon’s dark inner shadow. The track that the umbra traces across the earth during an eclipse is called the Path of Totality. It can be quite long, but only about 100 miles wide. It is the only time when the suns corona, the atmospheric plasma that surrounds the sun, is visible. Oddly enough, the corona is even hotter than the surface of the sun we can see!

The eclipse I saw that day was a partial eclipse, what is known as a penumbral eclipse. The penumbra is the faint outer shadow of the moon.

As the day approached the news was filled with the usual warnings about not looking directly at the sun, and with directions on how to make simple apparatus to view the eclipse. Although we had the filter, I made a pinhole camera out of a shoe box.

I remember the weather that day being perfect for watching the eclipse. My best friend had come over to watch it with me and he and my whole family gathered in the front yard and waited for the event to begin.

We watched in awed excitement as the moon slowly moved in front of the sun, each of us taking turns looking through the telescope and using the pinhole camera. As the darkness fell something happened that I hadn’t anticipated, something I found highly amusing: The birds began twittering and singing because they thought that night was falling.

As the eclipse started to wane most of my family lost interest and went back to their regular Saturday activities. My friend and I kept watching, still fascinated as the moon slowly crept away from the sun. I remember looking down at pavement of our driveway and seeing a stunningly beautiful sight. The sunlight was shining through the leaves on the trees onto the driveway, but instead of the familiar little circles of light, the driveway was coved with of little crescents of light; the trees had created hundreds of little pinhole cameras. I had never realized that those little circles of light I had seen so many times weren’t just sunbeams, they were actually little images of the sun.

On July 22 of 2009 there will be a total eclipse of the sun. It will be the longest total eclipse of the 21st century. The path of the eclipse will start in India and travel east across southern Asia. If you are lucky enough to be able to see it please be sure to take precautions so you don’t cause permanent damage to your eyes. See the show notes for a link of safety tips.

One of the cities that will be able to witness the total eclipse is Shanghai, China. My wife is from Shanghai, China and I am trying to convince her that it might be a good idea to take our 9 year old son there so he can witness it.

Although my son has not shown the same keen interest in astronomy as I did when I was his age, I think I should get him a telescope. If you have kids, I suggest you do the same. Every child should see the rings of Saturn at least once with their own eyes.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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