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Time Travel

Time Travel

Robyn Higdon and I arrived at Yap airport just after midnight. The warm, humid air smelled of flowers. Looking up at the night sky, I spotted a bright full moon straight overhead, confirming that we were in the tropics, near the equator, and that we were two weeks early for the upcoming total solar eclipse. The next new moon would block sunlight from reaching part of Earth, turning midday into night for four minutes of total eclipse.

At dinner later that day, we met eclipse-chaser extraordinaire John Beattie, who passionately proclaimed that this eclipse should be known as the total solar eclipse of March 9th to 8th, 2016. That made me stop and think. Wait a minute! How can an eclipse travel backwards in time? Then it dawned on me: the shadow of the moon will trace a path of totality across the Earth beginning near Indonesia on March 9, then racing eastward at over 1,000 mph—passing over our target Woleai—before crossing the international dateline. As soon as it crosses the dateline, the shadow will be bringing totality to the Earth’s surface on the previous day, March 8.

It’s always a tricky business figuring out when the eclipse will happen on the ground. NASA publishes eclipse times in Universal Time, aka UTC. So if an eclipse happened in Greenwich, England, on a day when daylight savings time was not in use, UTC would be local time, and following the eclipse would be easy. But we wanted to film an eclipse in Micronesia, then transmit the video to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and from there send it out to the world. Not so easy. First, we needed to find out when the eclipse would happen on Woleai, Micronesia. We searched online to find out the time zone Woleai was in and whether the island observed daylight savings time—a search that produced two conflicting answers. We eventually straightened out the conflict, establishing that totality would start on March 9 at 11:38 a.m. in the CHUT time-zone of Woleai, and that our signal would reach San Francisco at 5:38 p.m. PST on March 8. 

I smiled to think that we were sending images through space and time to arrive the day before.

The traditional long house and stone money of Yap—time travel of another sort. (Photo by P. Doherty)

For more eclipse information and to watch the live broadcast, visit our eclipse eclipse website.