The masses are ready to converge on Cornwall for August's solar eclipse. But for the eclipse-chasers, it will be just one of many that they've travelled thousands of miles to see. By Dan Falk
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IT'S A FIERCELY hot day, dusty and windy. At any other time, this thorn-and-thistle-strewn field on the northern tip of Curacao, in the Caribbean, would have been deserted. But this is no ordinary day. Today, 26 February 1998, hundreds of amateur astronomers are counting down the minutes until the sun disappears behind the moon in a total solar eclipse.

Some of those gathered are veteran eclipse followers, with five, or even 10, viewing expeditions under their belts already. But there are also dozens of first-timers, all with distinctly non-astronomical day jobs (electrical engineer, museum technician, clerical worker at Sears, and so on), all staring skyward in anticipation.

Eclipse-chasers admit they're an odd set of people. They're willing to travel thousands of miles, often to remote corners of the globe, just to witness an event with a running-time on par with a chart single. They can tell you the precise date of every eclipse they've seen, exactly where they were, and how many months and days remain until their next journey into the moon's shadow. Over by the food-and-drink stand, Aiten Hoffland explains why he has travelled all the way from the Netherlands for a three- and-a-half minute eclipse: "It's a unique event," he says - and his tone suggests that it is those who didn't make the trip who ought to be explaining themselves.

"It's a crazy thing to do," concedes a Toronto man. When pressed, eclipse- chasers agree that it is the rarity of total eclipses, as well as their intense, surreal beauty - even if it's a fleeting beauty - that attracts them.

"It's not quite a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Doug Hube, an astronomer at the University of Alberta. "But it's so infrequent, and each of these events is so different. Nobody ever knows exactly what we're going to see at that moment of totality."

That climactic moment - the start of totality - is now just minutes away. There is a long row of tripods bearing telescopes and telephoto lenses of every description. Their owners wait for the last sliver of sunlight to disappear: during these partial phases of the eclipse, when a portion of the sun's disc is still visible, it's too bright to be viewed directly. Until the sun completely disappears, safe viewing requires a solar filter or a welder's glass.

The day is not only darkening; it's also cooling rapidly. The temperature has dropped by some 10 degrees since the moon first began to cover the sun. The last few moments before totality are breathtaking. The planet Venus becomes visible over the southern horizon. It's a bizarre sight: this "evening star" blazing away at midday. Then only a pinpoint of sunlight remains, the famous "diamond ring" effect. Totality is imminent.

When the sun finally vanishes, gasps and cheers ring out. A thousand cameras begin to whirr and click. The sun's pearly outer atmosphere, the corona, shines like a ring of white fire outside the coal-black disc of the moon. Down on earth, it's as dark as deep twilight; the planets Mercury and Jupiter are visible on either side of the eclipsed sun.

Along the horizon, an eerie 360-degree sunset seems to surround us. The sun is entirely hidden by the moon so it is safe to gaze at the spectacle through binoculars. Many peer through camera lenses - though some of them will later regret that they didn't spend more time simply enjoying the spectacle with the naked eye.

Ralph Chou, from Waterloo, Ontario, has a telescope and two cameras trained on the eclipse; simultaneously he is monitoring a shortwave time signal and recording light levels. His data will help astronomers to make more accurate predictions about future eclipses. Dr Chou earns a living as an optician, but his friends know him as an eclipse-chaser extraordinaire: the Curacao event is his 14th. Nearby, his wife and two children seem to be enjoying themselves, even if they don't quite share Dr Chou's all-consuming passion.

Suddenly - too soon - a glint of sunlight appears to the right of the moon. Three-and-a-half minutes after it began, the total phase of the eclipse is over. Applause ripples through the crowd. The spectacle is winding down; daylight returns to Curacao.

Before the day is through, the eclipse-chasers are already making plans for this summer's eclipse, one of the most eagerly anticipated astronomical events of the decade. Its passage over densely populated areas means that it will be visible to an unprecedented number of people, making it the most watched eclipse in history. On 11 August 1999, the moon's shadow will sweep out along a 75-mile-wide path from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. First southwest England will be plunged into darkness, then northern France, southern Germany, the Danube valley, the Black Sea, parts of Turkey and the Middle East and, finally, central India. Enormous crowds, of as many as 1.5 million people, are expected in Cornwall and Devon, the only area of Britain that will see totality.

Of course, it is possible that a layer of cloud may obliterate the entire spectacle, but this is a gamble that eclipse-chasers are prepared to take. For this summer's eclipse, the weather prospects improve as you head east. In England and western Europe the chances of actually seeing the eclipse are about 50-50 ; the likelihood goes up to about 60 per cent in Hungary and Romania, 80 per cent in Turkey and 90 per cent in Iran. Ralph Chou will be watching from a site near Bucharest, where he will be leading a Royal Astronomical Society of Canada tour. This is where the eclipse will last longest - two minutes and 23 seconds.

In Cornwall it will be about 20 seconds shorter. There is, however, a way of extending that: 200 eclipse-chasers can book seats on one of two Concorde flights from Stansted which will be speeding eastward over the Cornish coast during the eclipse. Concorde can't move quite as fast as the moon's shadow, but the flight enables the total eclipse, as witnessed, to last about 11 minutes. (One drawback is that although the planes will be flying well above cloud cover, the eclipse will have to be viewed through the small, thick-paned windows.)

Those who have seen a total solar eclipse agree that it is difficult to put the experience into words. The eclipsed sun "is like a beautiful jewel set on a dark velvet cushion," says Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich soulfully. He is a veteran of 10 eclipses: "To be able to look directly at the sun and see the planets is indescribably gorgeous."

For a dedicated eclipse-chaser, each episode in the moon's shadow etches itself in the memory. That's especially true for Gingerich, for whom eclipses are bound up in love and romance - quite literally. "I figured out when the eclipse was going to be, and I told my girlfriend that I wasn't sure who I was going to marry - but I knew pretty well when the honeymoon would be," he says. He gallantly informed his future wife that, if she was interested in him, she must also be interested in eclipses, and that was that. They did indeed plan their honeymoon around the eclipse; and although it was clouded over, Gingerich and his wife have been happily married for 45 years. He will be in Turkey for this summer's eclipse.

Few people remain content with experiencing only one eclipse; many witnesses become hooked. "They're highly addictive," warns Gingerich. "After you've seen one, you'll knock yourself out to see the next one." 1