Friday 20 March 2015

A belated St. Patrick Moore's Day

The 4th March is my St. Patrick's Day. 

It marks the birthday of the late Sir Patrick Moore, patron saint of all of us amateur astronomers.

Patrick Moore was the Jeremy Clarkson of the BBC in the years before Jeremy Clarkson (minus the punching of minions, of course - unless Chris Lintott knows otherwise). He even, golly gosh, liked UKIP.

The blessed Sir Patrick, monocle-in-eye, would often warn us never to use our telescopes and binoculars to stare directly at the great sun god in the sky. And, as a result, I never did - and never will.

The BBC has been super-informative in the past few days about warning us not even to look at the Great Sun God (PBUH) with our naked eyes...and quite rightly so:


During the last solar eclipse however (whenever that was), I forgot myself and - in a moment of wild thoughtlessness - looked out and saw, for a good second or so, the sun in partial eclipse. 

And, idiot-that-I-am, I might have repeated my transgression today, sitting at work in almost exactly the same place, had it not been for all the grey clouds pretty much surrounding sunny Morecambe.

Obviously, it's never normally cloudy in Morecambe. 

Morecambe is, famously, Britain's sunniest seaside resort. That's why you must come here.

Our deckchairs are permanently out. Morecambe Bay sparkles in semi-eternal sunlight. The Eric Morecambe statue (restored to majesty after a local attack of vandalism) half-blinds spectators with its brilliance. (The giant statues of the two dead Kims in Pyongyang have nothing on it). Seagulls regularly faint in the heat. 

The Furness Peninsula crowd over the bay, with their crappy NHS hospital, daren't even take their sunglasses off when looking in our direction. The Marbella crowd move here en masse for the summer.

Plus, I always wear shorts and cool shades (like Horatio from CSI Miami), and all of Morecambe's wonderful womenfolk - even our wonderful would-be jihadi brides - wear bikinis all year round, even in the midst of winter. 

And, if proof were needed that today was unusual, the BBC's environmentalist analyst Roger Harrabin recently moved here in order to demonstrate global warming in action. He's tattooed the words, 'Phew, what a scorcher! Thank God for global warming!' on his left arm since arriving here. 

[Well, at least according to the Morecambe Tourist Board]. 

That said, hope you saw more of the sun and its lunar 'stopper' than we did.

And, returning to blog-related matters, the BBC has been great to watch vis a vis the eclipse. This is the sort of thing they do brilliantly. 


  1. "... the BBC has been great to watch vis a vis the eclipse. This is the sort of thing they do brilliantly".

    Well yes, but ...

    Leaving aside the obvious televisual appeal of the many eclipse pictures, the standard of information given in general news broadcasts before and after the event has been predictably low and, in my opinion, indicative of broader BBC trends. To list all the errors and banalities would take so long that it would be tedious, so here is just a warning sample.

    Reporters talked of parts of the UK being 'plunged into darkness' but this simply isn't true: the path of totality didn't cross the mainland, unlike in 1999 when Cornwall and south Devon did see a total eclipse, clouds permitting. It didn't occur to reporters to check how dark it would get if, say, 98% of the sun were covered; the answer is, not very! As only the extreme north west of the UK had even this degree of eclipse, and most parts had much less (< 90%) it was never going to get remotely dark! I know this from personal experience (three total eclipses, one annular and several partials) but anyone living on the south coast of England in 1999 could tell you the same; the sky may take on an interesting, even metallic, appearance but it remains light. It has been estimated that a 99% eclipse in a clear sky might well pass unnoticed to someone unaware of it who was reading by daylight indoors. Why not do basic research by asking an expert or indeed anyone who knows? Perhaps because the media promotion of the event and feeding frenzy would suffer from the unsensational truth.

    Another area of nonsense was comments about loss of solar power. The track of the full eclipse crossed very little inhabited land (the Faroes & Svalbard) and totality was under 3 min's even there. Smaller degrees of eclipse occurred to the south and east (in parts of Europe where there are banks of panels) but the slight interruption would be as nothing compared to regular heavy cloud, sadly a much more frequent occurrence. When the contribution of solar power is very small anyway, this is a non-story ... but then it does fit in with the BBC's Green agenda.

    My first two points might be said to require some basic understanding of solar eclipses but the third does not, i.e. that even much of the purely factual information about dates and rarity value was wrong too. Partial solar eclipses are NOT rare - there are at least 2 every year somewhere on the planet and the average is more like 2.5; 2000 & 2011 each had 4, and even 5 is possible. With average luck, a place might expect to see one every 3 years. These facts can be looked up on line or even in old books. Far from 20/3/2015 being the first since 1999, there have been many visible from the UK: 31/5/2003 was significant, being annular and > 90% in Scotland; 3/10/2005 was annular in Spain and still 57% partial in London; 29/3/2006 & 1/8/2008 were small partials but 4/1/2011 was 67% in London and more in Scotland. The expert Sheridan Williams examined 3000 years of UK solar eclipses and concluded that the gap of under 10 years between the partial one on 30/5/1984 and the next ones on 21/5/1993 and 10/5/1994 was "the longest eclipse drought in UK history".

    2026 was widely mentioned as the 'next' eclipse but even this is wrong: there are partial eclipses on 21/8/2017, 10/6/2021, 25/10/2022 and 8/4/2024, though 2026 is larger than these.

    The point of all this detail is: if an occasional amateur astronomer like me can find so much wrong with the factual reporting of this eclipse of 2015, then what other more important scientific subjects - about which I know much less - are being misrepresented through sensationalism, lazy journalism or even agenda-driven bias?

    1. A good question.

      And, yes, you're not wrong about some of the BBC reporting from BBC reporters who hadn't much of a clue about it. You kind of get to expect that from BBC reporters when anything vaguely scientific turns up and a non-scientific BBC reporter is doing the honours.

      In something of the same spirit: It went slightly darker than normal here. The blackbirds said 'goodnight' to each other. Then it went back to being light cloudy grey. The blackbirds forgot their mistake and went back to chasing each other. Then it rained.

    2. Interesting. Birds can behave strangely, especially when it's cloudy and gloomy to start with. I once saw a winter dawn coastal total eclipse and the birds were really confused by the darkening so soon after first light, making short panicky flights! The clouds actually helped observation here (a town between Birmingham and Bristol where we had 86%) as they took the glare off the small crescent sun at just the right time, around 9:40, making observation and simple photography simpler. It was a lovely day, very Spring-like.


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