Category: Uncategorized

24 Jul 2013

The Far North Queensland Eclipse of 2012

The community bonds together at Port Douglas on Nov 14 2012.  Image Credit:  Tourism Queensland, Simon Furlong.
The community bonds together at Port Douglas on Nov 14 2012. Image Credit: Tourism Queensland, Simon Furlong.


The total eclipse of November 14 2012 was my 8th total eclipse.  Yet it was still as magical, amazing, and wondrous as ever.  This eclipse seemed particularly beautiful – the diamond ring seemed to hang suspended in time; and the eclipsed Sun appeared to be larger than I recall from previous total eclipses.

Every total eclipse seems different to the last.  This is because there are so many things that vary during each eclipse, and this produces a different experience each time.  The position of the Sun in the sky, the landscape before you, the time of day, the company you are with, and the country you are in all influence the eclipse experience.  As many in North Queensland will also tell you, the presence of clouds also influences the experience of totality.

For me, the country and customs of people around contribute very strongly to the eclipse experience I have.  I was delighted to have experienced this eclipse on my home turf.  This made it very special indeed, and has made me want to do all I can to share the experience with my fellow North Queenslanders.  It has also made me want to ensure other communities who are in the path of the eclipse in the future realise the importance of this unique event.

07 May 2013

Annular versus Total Solar Eclipse

fig 8 - annular eclipse
The Ring of Fire – picture by Daniel Lynch


I am often asked to describe the difference between a Total and an Annular Solar Eclipse.

The key difference is that the Moon is further away from the Earth during an Annular as compared to a Total Eclipse.  This gives the appearance of the Moon being smaller in the sky, and it no longer completely covers the Sun.  Instead, a ‘ring of fire’ remains – the Sun still emits direct light.  Even though the light is greatly reduced, it is still not possible to safely view with the naked eye.  Filters must be used throughout.  As a result, key features of the Total Solar Eclipse are missing.

An Annular eclipse is pretty special, but if you are used to seeing a Total Eclipse then an Annular feels like a great buildup and then the peak just doesn’t happen. This is the reason why Geordie jokes that he “won’t get out of bed for anything less than a Total’ these days.

What does it feel like to experience a partial eclipse, an Annular, and a Total?   To me, it comes down to the degree of immersion and intensity.  On a scale of 0 to 10 of immersion and intensity, a partial eclipse I would rate about a 4 – it is interesting, it makes you think about the Universe in a three dimensional way, it makes you feel insignificant, you become aware of the inevitability of the Universal clock.  An Annular Eclipse I would rate about a 9 – there are added experiences such as the gradual dimming of light, animal reactions, the approaching darkness, and seeing the Ring.  It is pretty awesome. On the same scale, I would rate a Total Solar Eclipse as – 100.  This is because once you experience the Total Eclipse you realize that it is on a completely different scale altogether, and just cannot be compared.  It completely blows you away.

My own metaphor to describe the partial versus Annular versus Total Eclipse experience is to consider this musical scenario:

You have just received word that your favorite band in the world will be playing – and they are coming to your town!  You queue up, feeling very excited when you purchase your tickets.  Finally the day comes and you make your way to the venue.  You find a spot that is close to the front, and it just so happens to give you a great line of sight of everything.  The support band plays for an hour and you get caught up in the excitement, waving your arms in the air and dancing away as one with the crowd.  The support band ends their set, and the crowd starts cheering excitedly, building up a crescendo of noise and screams until the moment arrives – your band comes on stage!  You see them!  You are beside yourself with excitement.  For the next two hours, the band plays all of your favorite songs, and you feel like you are in your own little world, just you and the band, as you are part of this magical moment.  You have the experience of a lifetime. You go home that evening feeling so incredibly lucky, and content with your life.

Here’s the comparison – seeing a partial is like getting your tickets to the concert.  An Annular Eclipse would be like seeing the support act and then going home. The Total is experiencing the whole thing.

For those in Australia and the Pacific, enjoy the show on Friday 10 May.  I will remain in bed for this Annular – but I will be watching live webcasts as it approaches midnight here in Belfast, wishing I were there.

09 Mar 2013

Beyond language


mongolia sand dune

At my Brisbane book launch, I was speaking with Terry, an eclipse chaser who did a lot of media during the last total eclipse in November 2012.  Terry recounted how every local person he interviewed immediately after the eclipse to share their experience could only say a few words – “It was awesome”.  “It was amazing”.  People repeatedly struggled to find words.   I was not surprised to hear this – this is how I felt after my first eclipse experience, and it really did take quite a while to be able to put language to the experience.  Many eclipse chasers have stories of being near others who experience it for their first time, and seeing their reactions – being totally overwhelmed and unable to speak, or just repeatedly saying ‘wow’.

Even when we then are able to connect again with our brains after the experience, our language seems unable to express the intensity of what we have felt.  The experience of totality requires us to expand our mental structures in order to understand – not unlike the experience of childbirth or other significant life-changing experiences.   This is why we cannot explain it to those who have not experienced it – it is ineffable.

The problem is, when intense things happen to us, we want to share our experiences.  We want to talk to others – to connect with others.  When we try to explain to others who weren’t there, we sound a little crazy and fanatical, and it becomes frustrating.   We just cannot convey the power of the event, how it impacted upon us personally, and the ‘addictive’ nature of the experience.

I have now spent hundreds of hours interviewing people about their eclipse experiences – eclipse chasers and people who have just seen their first total eclipse.  These interviews usually are very fluent until we get to the point where totality occurs, and people stumble, slow down, pepper their words with ‘you know’, ‘it was like….’, ‘um, you know’, ‘…just awesome’.    People are reassured that I understand what they are trying to convey as I have been there, and this allows them to continue on with their struggle of finding the words, and with prompting and continued discussion we usually get to a point where the full experience is shared.  With all of these interviews, I have now noticed a few patterns when people try to explain the inexplicable:

Adding extra prefixes and suffixes –   The ‘specialness’ of the experience and the ‘unfathomability’ of the darkness of the Moon that looks out at you like an eye just cannot be described, along with other features.  For example, the ‘unduplicability’ of the colors on the horizon.  The ‘unstoppability’ as the Moons’ shadow races towards you, and the ‘inevitableness’ of the eclipse happening and there is nothing that we can do about it.  We just feel the need to add extra dimensions to our words to convey how amazing it is.

Overuse of similes – When people struggle with finding the words, they then try to find similar experiences to compare to, so that the things can be communicated through experience rather than through words.  ‘It was like CGI graphics’;   “light was like a 50’s film’;   the eclipsed Sun was ‘like a hole in the sky’, or ‘like the eye of god’, and the remainder of the partial eclipse grinned down ‘like a Cheshire cat’.   Totality felt ‘like anything could happen’, and you are shocked ‘as if a dead relative just walked into the room’.  The similes usually relate to feeling that something unnatural had happened, something so amazing that it had to be computer generated.

Attempts to use other senses – People sometimes start to use other ways of communicating, or using other senses in an attempt to convey their words.  Hand gestures increase without words coming out.  Some use an imagined sound to describe the experience – ‘like it all just popped into place’,  the darkness ‘came roaring towards us’.   It was like ‘it made a noise’ and was alive.

It’s fantastic that as adults we can experience such wonder in the world that makes us speechless.  The Japanese refer to this as Yugen – where we experience the full wonder of the Universe on a phenomenological level.   It is these experiences that make us feel the most alive.


28 Dec 2012

Being an author – and giving something back

Photo/Paul McErlane
Attending the launch of your first book – the most amazing experience

I had the idea for writing a book about my passion of eclipse chasing for many years. Many of my family and friends nagged me about it, saying that I should write about my eclipse chasing adventures.  The idea was always there, in the back of my mind.  But I always had doubts, or felt it wasn’t something I could do as I didn’t have the time.  I just didn’t really prioritise the idea of writing a book.

This changed in September 2010, when I attended a one day writers workshop run by a local author.  That was the day that I really took thinking about ‘the book’ seriously.  I was able to spend time thinking about what it would look like, why I would write, and what I would get out of it.  I learned so much by actually verbalising my thoughts about my idea.  I also found listening to others who were in a similar situation very inspiring.  My mind went into overdrive with ideas, and by the end of the day I bounded home from the workshop, feeling full of inspiration and energy, with a clear sense of how the book should be put together.  From that moment on, it all flowed freely and it was like I was ‘driven’ to write.

Three months later, I had a book contract with a major publishing company to write my first book.  And a year after that, I submitted my first book – I had become an author.  I am now currently writing my second book, and I feel extremely motivated to continue writing for a long time.  It is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

I have published as an academic;  I have written three different theses for my honors, masters and doctoral degrees.  But there is something very special about having written and published a book about something you are passionate about.  I still feel like I should pinch myself sometimes.  For me, attending a writers workshop was the key that got the whole process started.

I really enjoy helping others begin this journey for themselves.  I run workshops all the time in my day job as a Clinical Psychologist.  I teach doctoral level students.  I supervise research.  I write academic papers.  I run small classes. I coordinate a research discussion group.  I also teach motivational interviewing to medical professionals, and those living with chronic illness.  I teach communication skills.  I help people change their lives for the better.  I encourage people to live authentic lives.  Workshops are what I do.  I believe I have quite a unique set of skills to offer to first time writers.  So, I aim to run workshops on a semi-regular basis wherever I am in order to inspire others to follow their passion and start writing.  See Events for more details.  It just feels like a great way of giving something back.

24 Oct 2012

Cultural observations within the path of totality

Taking a more relaxed approach to life at Mission Beach, south of Cairns

I have now arrived in Cairns, the largest city within the path of totality for the November 14 total eclipse.  I like learning a little about the local culture when I travel to see an eclipse.   I am a North Queenslander myself,  so there is a lot that I already am aware of.  However, living away for more than 20 years has given me a unique opportunity to make some cultural observations from an outsider perspective.

Firstly, the people of NQ are really extremely friendly.  When you first greet them, they sound like they are greeting you as someone they have known for years – you can’t help but respond in the same way.  Then there is the more laid back mindset – you feel like you are going at warp speed compared to locals, and so it forces you to slow down and take things at a slower pace.  Even the pace of speech is much slower which allows you to slow down.  North Queenslanders are also extremely helpful, and nothing seems too much bother.  And generally, North Queenslanders seem to be a little more connected with nature – they have experienced directly and repeatedly the power of nature, and they seem to have a respect, tolerance and acceptance for what happens.  (I wonder whether this is why they are a little bemused at all the fuss about the eclipse).  Finally, North Queenslanders are far less concerned about appearance and looking the same compared to the UK, where there is so much pressure on young women in particular to look almost identical.  Variety is embraced and celebrated here.

I feel really proud to be a North Queenslander, and I am glad I have this opportunity to be able to reconnect with the local way of life.

18 Sep 2012

The Euphoria of a Book Launch

The ephoria of a book launchTwo days ago, I had the Belfast launch party for the book Total Addiction:  The Life of an Eclipse Chaser.  It has made me reflect on how different the process is of publishing a book versus completing academic work.  I have spent many years in formal academic study, completing a thesis for each of my honors, masters and doctorate degrees.  For each ‘book’, the writing took around a year (two for my doctorate) and submission was a huge stress which involved juggling impossible deadlines and multiple demands.  This was then followed by anxiety about the viva process.  After each successful viva, the thesis was bound, submitted, and then left on the shelf as I immediately got on with the next part of my life, appreciating the new found freedom of time I had.  Although each of these achievements were celebrated at the time, life carried on rather quickly.

Launching a non-fiction book about my passion of eclipse chasing has been completely different.  The actual writing and work and deadlines are the same, but the motivation is different.  When you complete writing the book, there is no viva, but there is the anxiety about others reading and making public judgements about your work.  Then the build up to the launch is very exciting, and you are thinking of ways to increase your profile and that of the book.  Momentum builds, as you stay with the project and roll with it.  The launch itself – absolutely awesome.  It makes such a difference when there is a public celebration of the book.  To me, this launch was all about the celebration, and sharing it with others.  And how wonderful it was to see people queuing to have you sign it!  And to hear that people are reading it!  For the whole of my launch, I was grinning from ear to ear.  And I’m still grinning now.

Belfast Book Launch 2012.  © Paul McErlane
Belfast Book Launch 2012. © Paul McErlane
Belfast book launch party.  (c) 2012, Paul McErlane
Belfast book launch party. (c) 2012, Paul McErlane
Me and Terry Moseley, one of the nine featured eclipse chasers, at my Belfast book launch for Total Addiction.  One of the best days of my life!  (c) 2012, Paul McErlane
Me and Terry Moseley, one of the nine featured eclipse chasers, at my Belfast book launch for Total Addiction. One of the best days of my life! (c) 2012, Paul McErlane
22 Jul 2012

Awesome research

 Huangshan Mountains, China

The article called Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being has been making the rounds of online magazines and blogs this weekend.  The article was recently published in Psychological Science by three American business school researchers In this experimental study, the researchers explored the impact of awe by either eliciting memories of experiences of awe, or by creating awe using images.   They then found that those who had experienced awe subsequently reported having more time available to help others, increased patience, a less materialistic outlook, and were more willing to help others.   “The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to bring us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”

Of course, as eclipse chasers, we are well aware that awe has this impact upon our perception of time, our sense of self, and our experience of the world.  These themes were identified in my book following the analysis of phenomenological interviews.  It is great to see that real life research with eclipse chasers is consistent with experimental studies.

Melanie Rudd, Jennifer Aaker and Kathleen Vohs. Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science, 2012

10 Jul 2012

Hot News!

The publication of my book Total Addiction:  Life of an Eclipse Chaser has been brought forward from September to the end of July.  The publishers and myself have been working behind the scenes in order to meet the earlier deadline.  It has only been in the past week that I have really started to let people know that the book is available to pre-order.  Since then, the book has become an Amazon bestseller – topping the Theoretical and Mathematical Astronomy Category, and at one point I was also second in the Hot New Releases in Astronomy.  I know it’s not a competition, but it was rather exciting to be up there above the likes of Prof Brian Cox, Sir Patrick Moore and Prof Stephen Hawking – if only for a week.

My sincerest thanks to everyone who is pre-ordering the book.  If you would like to pre-order through Amazon, please click on this link:  (again, apologies for the length – still can’t figure this hyperlinking out):″>Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser</a><img src=

This is my first book sold on Amazon, so I never really took notice of what the ranking figures meant, and how they were calculated.  When the book is a bestseller, these rankings are updated hourly, which means I am constantly checking to see where the book is positioned.  It’s yet another one of the things I have learned during the process of publishing a book – it has been a fascinating journey.


10 Jul 2012

A four year drought


An Eclipsed message
Letters made up of partial eclipses. Anything with holes can project the partial eclipse.

The countdown is on until the next total eclipse – 13/14 November.  Only 126 days to go!  It has been some time since I actually saw my last total eclipse.  The last one was on July 11, 2010 over Polynesia, Chile and Argentina.  I had to miss that one due to my partner Geordie overcoming a serious illness.  The total eclipse before that was on July 22, 2009.  I was in the crowd desperately willing the clouds to part in the Chinese seaside resort of Jinshanwei, just south of Shanghai.  Sadly, it was not meant to be.  So the last time that I have actually properly experienced a total eclipse was on top of a hill, in remote outer Mongolia, with Geordie and our eclipse chasing mate Chris.  What an amazing trip, amazing scenary, interesting people, and a great adventure, as well as a totally awesome eclipse.  That was on August 1, 2008.  It’s hard to believe that it was almost four years ago to the day.  I have been in serious withdrawal since, and as you can image am very keen to be in position in November.  I am literally counting down the days until I can stand in the shadow again.  Sigh.

21 May 2012

Live feeds and zzzzz

I stayed up last night watching the webcasts for the annular eclipse, which commenced at around 11.30pm local time in Belfast.  I was certainly not alone – I noted that many of the feeds had audiences of hundreds of thousands of people, all eagerly awaiting a glimpse of totality.  Those poor Panasonic guys up on top of Mt Fuji – I’m sure it was still an amazing experience, but it did look rather miserable.  It was great to see the eclipse from a variety of feeds.  I found myself flicking across different feeds, and I have to confess that I became so tired that I did not actually see any live feeds of the eclipse making landfall in the US..   Thanks again to all those involved in live feeds – it is much appreciated.   Even if I did fall asleep.