Totality – Eclipses Of The Sun

A survey of solar eclipses, written for readers of all levels
Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox
Oxford University Press
341 pages, Hardback

Now and then one comes across an astronomical text that deserves to rank as a classic. This is one of them. All three authors are leading experts. Fred Espenak is popularly known as ‘Mr Eclipse’ and he forms a great team with Mark Littmann and the late Ken Willcox.

There can be little doubt that a total solar eclipse is the most spectacular sight in the whole of nature. As the last sliver of the Sun is covered by the dark limb of the advancing Moon, the sky darkens and the pearly corona flashes into view, perhaps together with prominences, which were once called Red Flames. There are also many associated phenomena, such as Bailey’s Beads seen just before and just after totality, and shadow bands – wavy lines seen on the landscape just before totality. Look out too for stars and planets as soon as the sky darkens. Bright planets, namely Venus and Jupiter, will certainly be seen if conditions are good, and Mercury and Saturn if well placed. And, you never know, there could be an unexpected comet!

Many books on the subject have been written, but most deal with particular aspects of eclipse phenomena, whereas Totality covers the whole field – even mythology and some of the old ideas which sound so strange today.

The book first came out in 1991 and the second edition in 1999; for the present version the text has been brought right up to date. To take full advantage of the eclipse, it is essential to be fully prepared. This book tells you how to go about it, and also details future eclipses. Neither does it neglect annular and partial eclipses, which are well worth watching even though they lack the full glory of totality.

The book is written so clearly that it will appeal to everybody and it is well illustrated; the colour plates are beautiful and the diagrams excellent. There are extensive references, useful to both amateurs and professionals. Very properly, the dangers of solar observation are stressed; as the authors point out, it is only too easy to make a mistake and a moment’s carelessness can have tragic results.

In my view, this is the best book of its kind. If you're planning to see an eclipse – or even if you aren’t – I advise you to obtain your copy without further ado.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Patrick Moore is the presenter of The Sky At Night on BBC TV


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