Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Clock and corona

Hello from the house of scientific discovery! Yesterday's eclipse was big excitement, wasn't it? Around here, preparations were ongoing for days in advance. We were expecting a fair view here in New Mexico, somewhere between 50% and 75% of totality. Not too bad. The only catch was the weather forecast, which was for cloudy conditions and a good chance of rain. It's still monsoon season, of course, but what are the odds for having thick cloud cover in this climate AND an eclipse on the same day? Probably pretty slim. I mean, I'm no statistician, but come on. We kept our fingers crossed all weekend.

The day dawned dark and damp, but the small Bears were determined to watch the eclipse, come rain or shine. When they went outside to set up and start watching, it was raining lightly. They sat under the patio umbrella with the radio and some craft projects and waited. Amazingly, the clouds started to break up a little at just the right time! We were able to see the eclipse for about half an hour before it got cloudy again, blotting out the view.

Equipment-wise, it was pretty basic. We had eclipse glasses already; we bought some a few years back for viewing the Transit of Venus. The LB was interested in building a pinhole projector. There are several ways to do this. His consisted of a paper plate clamped onto the end of a long stick standing up in a bucket, with a pinhole through the top edge of the plate. Then he put another plate on the ground in a position where light from the pinhole would fall. Voila, a pinhole projector made from things found around the house and backyard.

Our view of the eclipse was not great, since the clouds remained fairly thick and only a little sunlight shone through. But can you see the eclipsed sun in the shadow of the plate? It's faint, but it's definitely there! We were really excited when the clouds broke up enough for the projector to work, like, dancing on the patio excited.

When the sun was out, you could see how much darker than normal it was, even without a total eclipse here. It looked like roughly 7 PM in the backyard around 11 AM, I would say. Normally, the sun is kind of blasting us in late morning, but not so much during the eclipse.

I wore my eclipse glasses, of course, but by the tail end of our viewing ability, I couldn't see through them anymore. I took this photo of the sun just before it went totally under the clouds, around 11:00. I think this was around the peak of the eclipse anyway, so we lost our view at just the right time. We were glad to have been able to see anything. It was really interesting and we had a good time preparing ourselves, with lots of great learning activities, reading about eclipses and watching videos to get ready.

Yesterday, which happened to be our full homeschool day, we also spent some time learning about Big Ben, the famous clock tower in London. Many of you already know, I am sure, that Big Ben will be silent for the next four years while restorations are made to the Victorian-era clock and tower. Yesterday was the day Big Ben fell silent. They had to stop the mechanism, and the bell and chime system, because it would be deafening to the men working on it if it remained operational during the project.

This is really interesting to me, from a cultural/daily-life standpoint. I've never been to London, so have no experience of life with Big Ben, but I am sure it will be very strange to have the "bonging" absent from daily life there. I've had a few experiences with regular sounds in the world around me - routine operations on a military base being one example - but never something like Big Ben.

The LB is very interested in Big Ben because of how it is operated. A couple of years ago, we read a book together called Longitude by Dava Sobel, about the invention of the chronometer by John Harrison in the eighteenth century. His invention solved an age-old problem: the inability to determine one's longitude at sea. Celestial methods work for latitude, but there was no good method for measuring longitude. Many ships (and lives) were lost as a result. Harrison's clock was designed to keep precise time at sea. Basically, the clock could withstand motion, temperature and atmospheric changes while sailing to a destination, carrying accurate time as the ship traveled. The time in the home port is the reference time. This, combined with knowledge of lines of longitude, allowed the navigator to convert time into distance and therefore east-west location. Harrison's clock was revolutionary, causing much controversy and political intrigue but eventually, it became indispensable. This is a fantastic book, even if you're not into marine navigation, astronomy or engineering (I am into none of these and I loved it).

After reading this book, the LB became very interested in clockworks, and is very well-versed in the topic now, so we spent some time yesterday reading about how Big Ben works. The LB understands a lot about complicated clock mechanisms like escapement. The GB liked learning about the stack of pennies helping to keep time correctly. I never knew that it's really just the bell which is named Big Ben, though the whole building goes by that name. We listened to recordings of the "bongs," as heard on the BBC's news reports and on New Year's. I'm really fascinated by the idea that people who live near Big Ben, and are listening to the New Year's broadcast, can hear 13 "bongs" instead of the actual 12. This is because the sound travels faster through the radio than it does the air. Isn't that amazing? I loved reading about Big Ben, what an interesting historic landmark, and one heck of a cool clock for those who really enjoy that sort of thing.

Did you get to see the eclipse where you are? How dark did it get for you?

Have you visited Big Ben, or can you hear it from where you live or work? Does it have significance in your daily life, or has it ever? If you have facts or tidbits you'd like to share, could you please leave them in a comment? I'll share them with the LB and the GB, who are very interested in Big Ben right now.


  1. We were across the river from Big Ben yesterday – the Elizabeth Tower is clad in scaffolding but you can still see the clock face. It is such an integral and reassuring part of the background noise of that part of London, it will be very strange with the bell silent for so long. How amazing to see the eclipse. I remember the one in August 1999 when I was pregnant with my first child – I was hanging out laundry in the back yard, the birds fell silent and the light faded – very eerie. It was cloudy so we couldn't see it, sadly. I have Longitude on my bookshelves but I've not read it! I will now. Have a good week, Jennifer. Sam x

  2. I was able to experience almost a full eclipse yesterday. We were a little bit north of the "band of totality" but not much. It was almost like sunset at 10:30 in the morning! Very strange. I had some borrowed glasses and was able to look up at the sun. Pretty amazing! I've been to London several times. I love to hear Big Ben sounding the hours. I can imagine it will be very strange for the people in London to not have that counting your days away over the next few years. Thank you for all the interesting information Jennifer. I always learn something reading your blog. Thank you for that. I'm so glad you got to enjoy the eclipse with your small Bears. How fun!
    Blessings, Betsy

  3. I watched the eclipse in the US on TV but forgot all about looking out for the partial eclipse here. I doubt we'd have been able to see anything anyway as it was very cloudy. I've only been to London a handful of times but I've got the usual touristy photo taken of me with the clock behind me. I was really taken with the architecture of the Palace of Westminster, it's such a beautiful building. The restoration project is going to cost millions and some people are for and some against spending that amount of money on it, but it's such an iconic landmark, it really should be preserved.

  4. Glad you got to see it. Andy and I went to Romania to see the total Eclipse that passed over Europe in 1999 I think?? The there was a partial one here a few years ago. They certainly are a thing to experience. Jo xx

  5. I didn't get to watch the eclipse here in northern IL because I didn't have any special glasses, nor did I make any kind of viewer. And it was so cloudy, that the darkness wasn't anymore than it normally gets before a thunderstorm. I'm so sad that I missed it. How awesome that you and your kids are learning about Big Ben! Your LB is definitely going to be an engineer. :-)

  6. We were at 80% totality here but I was working and had no glasses. I ran outside to see if it was darker at the peak minute and felt it looked like a cloudy day but the sun was still shining. Still my best friend was directly in the path in NC and she said it was absolutely incredible. GLad you all had fun.

  7. You did very well in your preparations for the eclipse! We were at 80% here but I didn't get glasses because I was going to be working. It was a clear day and was interesting how dark and almost eerie looking it got.
    I think Big Ben is interesting too and I love that LB is showing interest in it!

  8. I'm glad you saw some of the eclipse, Jennifer. I remember the one we saw in 1999 - we had similar pin-prick devices to yours and they worked really well!

  9. It really didn't get that dark here. It's okay. I'm glad so many people are so excited about viewing something in the heavens.

  10. It just looked eerie here, slightly. We are in NC. I was hoping it would get darker. Also hoped for an alien invasion...sigh, totally disappointed! ;-)

    We did see crescents under the trees. That was cool.

    Big Ben. I saw it once. Meh. It's a big clock. I feel guilty saying that! Shouldn't I appreciate its history more? :)

  11. We have visited London numerous times and always stop by to visit "Ben". It will be strange for it to be quiet for 4 years.
    Last time in London we went to Greenwich to see the zero meridian where time is counted from.

  12. How fantastic to see the eclipse and it has obviously been a great learning experience for everyone. I'm really sad about Big Ben falling silent but can understand the concerns over potential hearing loss - especially as L's boyfriend's father is the architect overseeing the renovations at the Palace of Westminster. R used to work for the BBC and told me that whenever you hear the chimes of Big Ben on the news, it isn't a recording, they are actually live. He now works in Whitehall and went to hear it chiming for the last time on Monday. At least we will still get to hear it at New Year and on Remembrance Sunday. xx

  13. What a busy science day you've had! I am glad you witnessed the eclipse at least part of the time. What a learning experience for you all! It is quite a special experience, isn't it? I witnessed two eclipses and particularly remember the one in 1999. The weather then was great and the experience was amazing.

    There has been a lot of Big Ben media coverage here, which seems disproportionate considering all the other world events. It is of course an important monument, with a lot of different meanings for different people and I don't mean to be judgmental. My dad was very fascinated by clockworks, he grew up in a town where watchmaking was a main source of income.

    Wishing you a happy week! xx

  14. What an interesting contraption you rigged up for the eclipse. We used sunglasses through a welding helmet, and it was a good view although everything looked purple and my photos were tinted an eerie green.

    I have always been fascinated and have collected clocks and watches for many years. I've never looked into the internal workings though, that would be more my little man's department as he loves to take things apart. I have a 14 year old girl and a very soon to be 12 year old boy and I have been a stay at home mom with them since I was 5 months pregnant with the first. I love it. I relate strongly to the words in your bio about enjoying a simple life at home.

    I'm so glad my little rant about IG brought you to the surface and if you don't mind, I'll be visiting you again.

  15. Looks like you all were well prepared for the solar eclipse. Of course, we weren't able to view it on this side of the world, but I did see a partial lunar eclipse earlier this month. Have only had a couple of layovers at Heathrow, never have visited London. I'm guessing when a sound is part of your life every day, it just sort of becomes background noise and you get used to it. When I was first in Kuwait, the call to prayer before sunrise always woke me up. Now I never hear it at all.

  16. You really are good scientists!

  17. Thank you Jennifer, you have given the best account and pictures of the eclipse I have seen. That was a great 'pinhole' you organised, and so effective. What fun you all had!

  18. What a thrill to have seen the eclipse, even partial such a great learning curve. I have heard Big Ben on many occasions as both my eldest and middle daughter lived and worked in London after university. We visited them there regularly and always visited the great tourist spots.

  19. Those pictures of your children with the glasses are adorable. It looks like you all had a great time. After watching all the eclipse excitement, I was sorry we didn't drive to see it (about 5 hours away) -- several friends at work did and they said traffic was insane. We're on the very edge of the path for the 2024 eclipse, so, I'm thinking a little drive an hour closer to the middle will definitely be in our future!

  20. How cool to have an solar eclipse on homeschooling day, such a natural opportunity for learning. There's been much fuss here about the length of time it's going to take to work on Big Ben, and the cost. I often hear the bells from the church up the road though and would miss them if they fell silent. X


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