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Solar Eclipse 2015 – Members’ Experiences

ASE setting up

Members of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh setting up telescopes and helping members of the public to view the eclipse. (Photo: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

My eclipse experience was rather different to the event I was expecting.  When Seán first proposed the idea of hosting an event outside the Parliament, I thought it was a great idea.  Something new, a nice setting, plenty of hard standing for telescopes, and maybe a little bit of publicity for the Society and astronomy in Edinburgh.  After various meetings with the Parliament, the Society’s council and many, many emails back and forth covering all manner of topics (including verification that Arthur’s Seat wouldn’t be in the way!), I was getting decidedly worried that the weather would ruin the big event which was unfolding.

When the sun was shining on the morning of the eclipse, I was dutifully sceptical – well how many astronomers in Scotland don’t assume the worst?  But as the sun was still shining when we reached the Parliament, a little bit of hope took hold and steadily began to grow.  Maybe, just maybe, the weather would be kind to us for once.

Setting up

Getting set up, with crowds already beginning to form. (Photo: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Even as we were setting up at 7.30am, there were a small number of people gathered outside the Parliament – whether because they knew we would be there, or because they had just thought it would be a good place to observe the eclipse I don’t know, but it is nice to think it was because of the ASE!  I ended up inside to help set up for the school groups which would be coming in for a short talk on eclipses, and then to observe the event either on television screens broadcasting pictures from the Faroes, or with solar viewers for the older children.  Ken and Seán had kindly agreed to talk to a group each of older and younger children and we had various hand-outs set out for anyone who wanted more information.

Seán had a solar viewer tucked away in his pocket, and while we were getting organised we managed to sneak our first glimpse of the eclipse through the window of a conference room.  I knew what to expect – I had witnessed eclipses before, albeit none which reached the percentage of totality that this one did – and this small bite of darkness out of the sun’s disk shouldn’t have been a shock to me.  But I found myself feeling utterly incredulous and completely gleeful all at the same time – our moon is actually blocking the sun from view.  This should be impossible, but due to all manner of little coincidences, the conditions on Earth are such that we can see eclipses happening every so often, and it truly is an epic natural phenomenon.

Just as the talks were getting underway, a member of the Parliament staff came looking for Seán, now occupied by 40 school children, for help with the crowds outside.  When it became clear that some queue management was needed – someone who could figure out which of the scopes was ready for the next person to come and have a look, and point them in the right direction – I have to admit to being a little bemused.  We had somewhere in the region of 6 scopes set up and various people with eclipse glasses, projection set-ups, binoculars and colanders as well – there should be plenty instruments there to deal with the small groups of people who would like a look at the eclipse!

Being the only person available for the job, I went outside with the concerned member of staff, and was greeted by a sight I never could have anticipated. The queue for the telescopes meandered away from the scopes and off around the building. I have no idea how many people were in the queue but it must have been easily in excess of two hundred people, and there were many, many more people standing around the site watching the eclipse through their own solar viewers, taking photos or using pin-hole projection.

Eclipse glasses

A man viewing the eclipse through eclipse glasses, specially filtered to keep the sun from damaging your eyes. (Photo: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

In a state of mild shock, I managed to ascertain which scopes were good to go and started directing people to the next available telescope. As others managed to get aligned on the sun (surprisingly difficult, as you can’t directly look at it to point the scope, and the sun is a deceptively small object in the sky), we got into a steady rhythm which would have got through most queues in pretty short order. As it was, the people kept coming as the eclipse progressed, and the queue didn’t seem to diminish significantly!

Eventually, around mid-eclipse, thin clouds started coming in and obscuring the sun. While this meant that the scopes were rendered useless until a gap in the cloud (assuming the sun hadn’t tracked too far across the sky in the meantime), it did mean that the crowd was suddenly able to see, with the naked eye, what was going on. The combined dimming of light from the cloud cover, and sudden hush and gasp from the crowd was a very eerie experience, but an exciting one nonetheless as it was blatantly clear that everyone was feeling exactly the same amazement and excitement at the spectacle.

As mid-eclipse passed and the clouds got worse, the queue for the telescopes dwindled away to a few die-hards who were willing to wait it out to get a telescopic view of the eclipse between the clouds. Everyone relaxed and the views we did manage to snatch were much less hurried.

Solar scope

Catching a glimpse of the eclipse through the Society’s solar telescope, in between clouds. (Photo: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

When the eclipse was finally over, we gathered together, all the equipment packed away, and started exchanging stories of the exclamations members of the public had made over the sights they saw in the telescopes, the questions asked, and the number of people whose eyesight was saved by some quick intervention! Seán very kindly took us all into the Parliament cafe where we spent a good hour chatting about all things astronomical, providing a very welcome and sociable end to a busy event.

Throughout my queue management role, I was very grateful to Alan Ellis and Dorothy Mackie who stopped by whilst mingling with the crowds and sharing their eclipse glasses around, so that I could have a peek too – not having mine on me when I left the building was a big mistake! I was also very grateful to Scott Provan for the views of the eclipse he dragged me over to see through his scope, between members of the public, ensuring I got a chance to view the event I was so busy trying to help everyone else see.


My prized possesion from the day – a photo of the sun at mid-eclipse, through cloud. (Photo: Rachel Thomas)

While part of me wishes I could have observed the entire eclipse unhindered, and had ample opportunities to take photos, given the chance to go back and do it again I wouldn’t change my mind. The eclipse was incredible in itself, but being able to share the experience with so many people was unbelievable. It amplified the excitement and meant that there was always someone to exclaim about it with. I also find it so much more exciting and satisfying to observe with all my friends from the ASE, as we all share the same passion for astronomy, and no one looks at you oddly for getting so excited about such geeky topics. Well… most of the time anyway!

Rachel Thomas

This is one of a series of personal accounts recorded by our members of their experience viewing the partial solar eclipse on the 20th of March 2015.

Science and Magic of Light, the Universe and Everything 2015

Chris Lintott

Chris Lintott starting his talk on ‘Our Colourful and Luminous Universe’ at Science and Magic of Light, the Universe and Everything 2015.

ASE Display

A member of the public perusing the ASE’s display.

Science and Magic of Light, the Universe and Everything on 28th March 2015 was billed as a warp speed tour of our amazing universe led by world leading scientists and magicians. The day of free talks, demos and discussions took place at Edinburgh University Debating Hall in Bristo Square, and was intended to be suitable for all ages. This is, I believe, the third such day of astronomy talks organised by Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John Brown, Lorna McCalman and Charlie Gleed which the ASE have been involved in, and was a great success in celebrating the International Year of Light 2015.

During the course of the day there were talks by astronomers Prof. John Brown, Prof. Colin McInnes, Prof. Martin Hendry and Prof. Chris Lintott, while magicians Euan Callison, Kevin McMahon and, of course, our Astronomer Royal John Brown injected some magic into the event. The talks were brilliant and the magic engaging. I noted a number of serious astronomers cracking a smile at various points, not least when poor Chris Lintott was attacked by Zurg the naughty Alien!

Solar Observing

Ken and Horst align the Society’s solar telescope.

Alongside the event, there were planetarium shows being run throughout the day by Cosmos Planetarium, Jamie Shepherd had again come along with his impressive collection of meteorites, and the ASE were out in force with a display set up in the foyer outside the Debating Hall. We had the usual information and hand-outs available, as well as a couple of telescopes on show and a number of members available to talk to interested parties. We had a great turn out which meant that there was always someone available to look after the telescopes and display while other members listened in to the various talks, or took the solar telescope outside to attempt some solar observing during breaks in the clouds.

The good turn-out of members not only meant that we were all able to take breaks from engaging with the public to listen in to the talks or go for lunch, but it also meant that we had a great group of like-minded people to discuss the content of the talks with, as well as any other topics which came up. I very much enjoy doing outreach and sharing my love of astronomy with others, but it is always better with friends. Being in the ASE has a lot of benefits, but the friendship with others who share your passion is one of the best things for me, as I know that I will always have a great time when there are other members involved.

ASE Group Photo

ASE members with Prof. Chris Lintott, current president Ken Thomas, and honorary presidents Prof. Andy Lawrence & Prof. John Brown.

Science and Magic of Light the Universe and Everything was a great day of talks, an excellent chance to spend the day with other astronomers from all over the country, and to round it off, the ASE contingent even managed to get a group photo with Chris Lintott!

Rachel Thomas

Rachel has been a member of the Society for over 10 years, and during that time has been actively involved in most of the public outreach events attended or organised by the ASE.  She is currently on the Council, Tweets for the Society, and reinvented the Journal into its current online presence in 2013.

“ALMA and Llamas” – October 2013


ALMA, taken by Tania Johnston

This month we were joined by Tania Johnston from the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.  Tania is the Senior Public Engagement Officer and works in outreach with schools and the general public to promote astronomy and the research and technology being developed by the ROE (  The ASE has worked with Tania and her team on a number of occasions at different events, and it was a pleasure to have her along to one of our meetings.

Tania’s talk was entitled “ALMA and Llamas” and was a very interesting account of her visit to Chile which was funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.  The trip was over the course of 6 weeks and allowed Tania to explore the booming astrotourism business, and the various large telescopes which have been built in Chile because of it’s ideal conditions for ground-based observing.  In particular, she was able to visit ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, and experience the process of assembling and placing one of the many dishes which make up the array.

Packing 6 weeks of experiences into a short talk must have been a difficult process, but for those of us who want to hear more about the amazing time Tania spent in Chile, her blog of the trip can be found here:

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which made the trip possible, grant funds to British citizens “to widen an individual’s experience in such a way that he or she grows in confidence, knowledge, authority and ambition. To bring benefit to others in the UK through sharing the results of the experience.”  Further information on the Trust can be found here:

Our thanks to Tania for coming along to share her experiences with us, and we hope to work with her and the ROE again very soon!

Rachel Thomas

Royal Observatory Edinburgh Open Days


One of the shorter queues for the telescopes!

Last weekend, on the 28th and 29th of September, members of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh turned out to support the annual open days at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. The Society has a good relationship with the ROE and for the past few years we have been invited to attend the open days to help promote astronomy to the general public, as well as to publicise the Society.

On Saturday Ken, Peter, Alan E and Scott all supported the event by manning a telescope looking at the moon, as well as the Society’s solar telescope and, in the afternoon, the Institute for Astronomy’s LX90 with a 2 part filter system which gave the public closer views of the current solar activity. In addition there was a stall set up with various member-produced materials for the public to take away including information about the Society, a planisphere kit, a sundial kit, a list of useful astronomical websites and information on upcoming lectures held by the Society. On Sunday, Ken and Peter were joined by Rachel, and had all 3 scopes working throughout the day showing variously, the sun and the moon. The reaction to views through the telescopes was, as always, very encouraging with lots of comments along the lines of “wow!”, “is that really the sun?!” and “amazing!”

Over the course of the two days 3,500 people came through the gates of the observatory and the chance to help enthuse that many people in the subject of astronomy is one that the Society never passes up! Our thanks go to the ROE staff and volunteers who always make us so welcome, and to those members who supported the Society’s attendance at the event through manning telescopes and creating and printing materials for the public to take away.

Rachel Thomas

Welcome to the ASE Journal!

ASE LogoWelcome to the new Astronomical Society of Edinburgh Journal!  Some of you will have known the journal in it’s previous incarnation as a quarterly publication distributed to members of the Society.  As it was no longer an option to continue in this form, it was decided that an online journal would provide us with the chance to easily reach members with news of the Society and updates on events we have been involved in, as well as providing members with a forum in which to publish articles on their interests and research within astronomy.  We all hope that this will prove a useful tool for members and that it will allow us to continue the journal, albeit in a new form.

Rachel Thomas

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