A Very British Eclipse

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As parts of South America witness a total solar eclipse, I’m reminded of the day in August 1999 when I fulfilled a boyhood ambition of witnessing one.

As I travelled down to Devon from South Wales (the eclipse was only going to be total in parts of Cornwall and Devon) I really started to capture the excitement when I stopped at a Service Area on the M5, as there was something of a party atmosphere.

I eventually parked on the waterfront at Kingsbridge, near some good public conveniences that were open 24 hours, and attempted to get some sleep in the car. Waking soon after 4.00 am I decided to make my way the coast, heading for Slapton Sands. I arrived at about 5.00 am and was totally unprepared for the level of traffic and activity going on.

There were some quite large car parks, and I managed to get one of the last spaces. It was right next to the beach, people were sleeping in cars and vans, in tents, and in sleeping bags on the beach itself. As it started to get light, there was no way I was going to get any more sleep, so I decided to get the bike out and go for an early morning cycle ride. There was a great buzz in the air; it was one of those occasions when people were drawn together by a shared experience, strangers found it easy to talk to each other. Telescopes, cameras and the like were being set up on the vantage points, and the smell of cooking was hanging in the air. By this time the authorities had closed off the car park entrances, and the refreshment vans were doing brisk business.

By about 8.00 am the traffic had become even busier, but there was nowhere to go, no sooner had people parked half on the road, half on the grass verges, they were moved on. Fields were opened up for the cars, but these eventually filled up, and still the cars were coming, causing chaos in the narrow country lanes.

I managed to see the eclipse at various stages, up to about 70% covered, but then the threatening darker clouds came and obscured the view, but nothing can prepare you for the experience of totality, and it’s impossible to adequately describe in words.

the approach of darkness
the drop in temperature
the quietness that descended on the crowds
the expectation
the moment of totality
the darkness during the day
the birds flying off
the applause of the crowd

Because of the cloud cover, I saw nothing more of the eclipse as the Moon finished travelling across the Sun, although the Sun did break through later on.

And that’s my experience of the eclipse, something I will never forget. I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t actually see the full eclipse, but I experienced something equally unique; it was moody, eerie, and atmospheric, to be under cloudy skies when the shadow of the Moon travelled overhead at nearly 2000 mph, a very British eclipse.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

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The other day I borrowed (with permission) this book from a cafe, because having started it I was hooked. It’s a 2011 science fiction novel written by Andy Weir, adapted into a 2015 film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.

It appealed to my inner geek, as well as my interest in science and space exploration, but what completely sold it to me was an endorsement by a real-life astronaut Chris Hadfield: A book I just couldn’t put down! It has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy.

If I had the time I would have probably read it in one sitting, but I’m currently half-way through it. It’s fast-paced, in fairly short chapters, with brief sections, and this all makes for an easy read. I’ve known about the book and film since they came out, so I’m a little late to the party, but better late than never! I look forward to finishing the book and catching up with the film sometime.

Update: I finished the book (a really gripping read) and Naomi bought me the DVD, so we snuggled on the sofa to watch it. All in all, a great book and film. Oh, and I was finally able to return the book in August 2019 and enjoy lunch and a coffee.

Vacant Earth

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Fragile Earth by Mixtaped Monk (also known as Arka Sengupta) is one of my favourite independent albums of 2018; I loved it the minute I first heard it.

I’ll let him describe it: Imagine waking up one day and discovering that there are no human beings present around you. You have all the essential supplies of the world at your disposal. But you are left to fend for yourself. What would you feel? How would you react? What would you do with your time? How would you lead the rest of your life? Will you accept your fate? Or would you ceaselessly search for others like you?

Inspired by a dream a dear friend of mine had once, “Vacant Earth” tries to answer the questions mentioned above. Through sounds (and their associated emotions) the album tries to relate the story I imagined, with me as the protagonist, when my friend had first told me about her dream. Sonically, the album borders around post-rock, neo-classical and ambient music.

Note: You can see all my favourite albums in 2018 here.

International Space Station

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Today marks 20 years of the International Space Station, with the launch of the first element (the Zarya module) occurring on 20 November 1998. From this initial launch, the station has been built up bit by bit to the structure it is today. It’s easily seen when it passes over your location (there are many apps that notify times and dates) as it orbits the globe every 92 minutes. British astronaut Time Peake has been a crew member of the ISS, and I’m currently reading his excellent book (pictured above). It’s an easy read and tells you everything you need to know about his life as an astronaut and the ISS, and would make an excellent present for someone (or yourself).

Discovery Museum in Newcastle

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Towards the end of our summer holiday 2018, we visited the Discovery Museum in Newcastle (just a few miles down the road from our home in Wallsend). It was a chance to see Stephenson’s Rocket which was on loan to the museum at the time of our visit.

Entry to the museum is free, but they do suggest a £5 donation. Even without the Rocket, there’s plenty to see and do for all ages. In the time we had at our disposal it wasn’t possible to see and do everything, so we’ll definitely be back for a return visit sometime.

The museum is a science museum and local history museum situated in Blandford Square in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. It displays many exhibits of local history, including the ship, Turbinia. It is one of the biggest free museums in North East England, and in 2006 was winner of the North East’s Best Family Experience award at the North East England Tourism Awards. It is managed by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Wikipedia

Click here for the Discovery Museum website.

Listen to Apollo 11

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As a boy I was fascinated by the Apollo Moon landings, starting especially with Apollo 8 when men travelled to the moon for the first time (without landing) and culminating in Apollo 11 (the first landing) and subsequent missions – so much so that I kept a scrapbook and folder of memorabilia at the time.

NASA has now uploaded 19,000 hours worth of audio from the historic Apollo 11 mission which saw the first humans walk on the Moon. You can search the archive or click ‘Surprise Me’ on the website: app.exploreapollo.org

The Need for Sleep

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Sleeping is the best thing we can do to improve our overall health; it’s so simple that it’s often forgotten or ignored. I’m currently reading an excellent book about why we sleep, and I’ve been surprised at the very negative effects lack of sleep can have on our mental and physical health, especially if we are building up a sleep deficit over a long period of time.

We all need both quantity and quality of sleep to function normally in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, there are those who boast about how little sleep they need, and there’s also an implied societal view that sleep is somehow lazy and unproductive; these can be easily demonstrated to be false and unhelpful.

Prolonged lack of sleep weakens your immune system, doubles your risk of cancer, and increases the your chances of suffering heart disease and stroke, for example. It also adversely affects your mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression and suicide. Worryingly, many road traffic accidents are caused by lack of concentration, drowsiness and microsleeps.

Although I’ve been aware of the effects of being sleep deprived for a while, I’m now more determined to do something about it – even if having three young children doesn’t make it easy, but as an older father I owe it to them to be healthy.

Note: I’ll post about the book in due course and give some tips on improving sleep.