News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 8, 2014

Rings of Fire: Amateur astronomer, photographer’s hobby has led him across the world in pursuit of total eclipses of the sun

By Steve Kash
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — Some people might think amateur astronomers are the kind of people who enjoy star gazing from the safe confines of their homes or perhaps an observatory, but for Clinton-area resident Spencer Young, being an astronomer is a far cry from safe and easy armchair activity.

Young’s passion has led him, telescope — and camera — in hand, to an observation site in the vicinity of a smoking volcano in Indonesia. Another eclipse-watching trip took him to southern Turkey. He and his tour group of fellow astronomers set up their observation equipment close enough to an area of potential guerrilla activity that the Turkish authorities dispatched an army tank to go along to make their journey safe as possible.

Young’s excursion to the Gobi Desert in Western China to see a total eclipse near the Mongolian border found him and his astronomer cohorts caught up in a turf war between a Chinese colonel and a Chinese police commander over where they could set up their telescopes.

Unfazed by the occasional challenges that have come about because of his desire to see total eclipses of the sun, Young said, “Seeing a solar eclipse is an experience of extreme beauty … a rare and great privilege … a superb aesthetic experience.”

His interest in astronomy began when he was a seventh grader growing up in Chicago. “My parents encouraged me with my hobby,” he said. “Dad was a metallurgical engineer, and he liked seeing me involved in scientific activities.”

Another youthful activity of Young’s — photography — eventually linked up with his interest in astronomy. He first became involved with the subject when in high school as the photographer for his school’s yearbook.

Young studied astronomy throughout college as he earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern and then a master’s degree from Iowa State. During summers he worked for photographers in and near his home town. In the 1970s, when it became obvious to him that there were no jobs in astronomy, he fell back on his only marketable skill and worked for several years as a portrait and wedding studio photographer.

“While I was working as a photographer,” Young recalled, “Dad told me, ‘One thing that is not going out of style is coal. It’s a very practical way to make a living.’ I began teaching myself geology with the intention of entering the coal business.”

Young worked as a geologist for small coal mining companies from 1978 until 2000. In ’96, his work brought him to Clinton.

By 1983, Young’s success in the coal industry had already enabled him to take his first eclipse-viewing trip — to Indonesia.

Around the world

“Part of the fun of going on a trip to see a total eclipse is that it takes me to see new parts of the world,” Young said. “My first stop in Indonesia was the island of Bali, which is the favorite place I’ve visited. Not only is the island itself a magnificent physical sight, Balinese culture is fascinating. The island is saturated with creativity rooted in Hindu cultural heritage. Balinesians dress colorfully and have enchanting ways of expressing themselves, like wood-carving dances, shadow puppet plays and other activities.”

The tour group that Young was with, like all he has been on, was led by a person with an astronomical background. This tour’s operators arranged to have the amateur astronomers set up their viewing equipment for the 11 a.m. eclipse at a high school soccer stadium near the town of Yogyakarta on the island of Java in the same area as the smoking Mt. Merapi (Fire Mountain in English). It is Indonesia’s most active mountain and one that has been erupting regularly since 1548. The astronomers’ primary worry that day, however, was that they would not be able to see the eclipse because the morning sky was cloud-covered, but 45 minutes before the moon began covering the edge of the sun, the clouds broke and sky became blue.

The totality of a solar eclipse as the moon completely goes across the sun takes about two hours, but the period of time that the disc of the sun is completely covered is only about three to four minutes, and toward the periphery of the path of the total eclipse of the disc there may only be 30 seconds of darkness. If much of a sliver of the sun is exposed, because sunlight is so powerful, it is still capable of casting shadows on earth.

According to Young, an eclipse’s most brilliant aspect occurs when the sun’s disc is fully covered: “As soon as the sun is blackened, the brightest stars come out. It seems like nighttime. You can look directly at the sun without hurting your eyes during the time of totality. The sun’s corona can be twice the diameter of the sun itself. The brightness of the sky washes out the corona except during a total eclipse.”

When Young’s initial experience of eclipse watching had passed, he told himself, “This is great. I’ve gotta do it again.”

But not long after traveling to Indonesia, the coal company he worked for went bankrupt so his eclipse viewing was put on hold for several years.

Young’s involvement in the coal industry eventually enabled him again to pursue his love for witnessing total eclipses of the sun. In 1994, he was able to buy stock in a profitable coal mining company, which led to his move to Clinton.

Then in 1998 he traveled to the Caribbean, where that February a total eclipse of the sun was visible in the vicinity of Aruba and Curacao.

“It turned out to be a wonderful trip in several ways,” Young said. “I was 51 and had never snorkeled. I got to swim amidst some beautiful tropical fish and enjoy myself in other ways. … Seeing this eclipse was made possible because I did it from a cruise ship. On the day of the eclipse, it was variably cloudy, but the captain used his satellite maps to find cloud-free zones so we could view the event.”

Young’s next eclipse trip took place the following year. Destination: the vicinity of the city of Batman in southeast Turkey, just north of Iraq.

“A total eclipse of the sun takes place about every 500 years at any given location on Earth,” said Young, “but nearly every year a total eclipse takes place somewhere.

“Visiting Istanbul, Turkey, was especially interesting for me. The city has some of the world’s most splendid architecture, sites like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I was really interested in the city’s history because when it had been called Constantinople, it was the capitol of the Roman Empire. … I had read ‘Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’

“Batman was in a very remote area of hot and dry steppe lands. The Turkish government sent two soldiers in a light tank escort with our vehicle because of its concerns of possible Kurdish separatist activity. When you go to see an eclipse in a region like this, the astronomers are really hard-core.

“The day of that eclipse of the sun was completely sunny so we had no concerns with visibility, but it was 110 in the shade. In dry areas, the loss of sunlight has a major impact. When the eclipse reached totality, the temperature dropped to 85. All of us, including the soldiers, really enjoyed that eclipse.”

Young’s other experience of seeing an eclipse in an area where political considerations added drama to the outing took place in late June, 2008, in Western China. After some pleasant sightseeing in Beijing, Young and a group of astronomers flew to Dunhuang in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and then they made their way to the intended viewing site 10 miles from the Mongolian border.

“I’ve never seen a night sky so dark as in that remote area. It seemed like every star was visible,” Young said. “We had to take a 10-hour bus trip up through the Tien Shan Mountains to get to the valley where we were to view the eclipse. Our tour organizer had made arrangements with the local chief of police, who had given us permission to set up our equipment in a certain place.

“Then a Chinese colonel showed up on the scene and informed us that we could not stay at that site because it was too close to the Mongolian border and he did not want to get involved in possible issues with the Mongolian government. As the eclipse approached, we had to pack up and hurry off to another site half an hour away. It turned out that when we arrived at the reassigned area it was overcast as we began setting up the equipment.

“We were lucky that there was a break in the clouds soon before the eclipse started.”

On the occasion of Young’s next eclipse trip in 2010, good fortune again enabled him to fully experience the brilliance of a total eclipse when others in his group would miss the best part of traveling to see it.

“We flew out to Papeete, Tahiti,” he said. “What a beautiful place! Perhaps it is similar to Hawaii. Eighty of us astronomers were on this tour so on the day of the eclipse, which was in the early morning, the tour organizers separated us into two groups of 40 and flew each set of people to a different atoll. The first group got clouded out, but my group got a break in the clouds about 10 minutes before the eclipse began.”

Young took another eclipse-viewing tour in 2012 to a fun place in the Pacific area. The astronomer group with which he was traveling set up an observation site near the Great Barrier Reef on a coastal plain located in a rain forest in Northeastern Australia.

“Some light clouds were in the sky that day,” he said, “but by the time of the eclipse it was clear.”

Seeing a transit of Venus across the face of the sun is not an activity as otherworldly to behold as a full solar eclipse, according to Young, but for an astronomer it is a choice opportunity since such transits only take place a couple times every 100 years. Fortunately for Young and other astronomy enthusiasts, transit-of -Venus viewing opportunities occurred in 2004 and 2012. No more will happen until the 2100s.

“The transit takes about four hours,” Young said. “Venus appears as a black dot crossing the sun. A person needs specially equipped telescopes to view it. These transits can be seen from an area much more extensive than solar eclipses, being visible in daylight for people with the proper equipment along a world-wide range of longitudes.”  

With such a broad variety of viewing site possibilities available for transits of Venus, companies catering to the astronomer trade select especially interesting locales to be observation points.

In 2004, for his first Venus, Young went to the Greek island of Santorini, which is widely recognized as one of the 10 most beautiful destinations on Earth. Santorini overlooks a watery volcanic caldera separating it from three neighboring islands — 3,600 years ago one of the greatest volcanoes in recorded history took place here. Many scholars believe that the Minoan civilization in place on Santorini at the time of the volcanic upheaval was used by Plato as the model for his fabled Atlantis.

“We watched the transit of Venus right from our hotel overlooking the caldera,” Young said.

His other transit-of-Venus excursion led him in 2012 to Turkmenistan in Central Asia. Young chose to go there because he had read of Samarkand and Bokhara, fabled cities that a thousand years ago were centers of culture along the historic Silk Road.

“Genghis Khan sacked these cities in 1225,” Young said, “but they still have excellent examples of Islamic architecture that I wanted to see. Samarkand was a terrific place to visit — the whole region is a worthwhile travel opportunity.”

In pictures

Young’s photography was not a prominent part of his life during the time he viewed his first solar eclipse, but in 1998, around the time of his eclipse cruise in the Aruba area, he took it up again, focusing on shooting landscape images in Western Indiana at places like Turkey Run and Shades state parks. He has used the famous photographer Ansel Adams as his role model, and many of Young’s landscape shots have been in black and white in the style of Adams.

Since Young’s return to photography, he has expanded to color and digital. His current landscape specialty is doing rock pictures featuring colorful lichens with blue and green hues on rocks that have oxidized into having yellow and orange coloration.

“It’s quite a palate,” Young said.

His photographic work has been displayed in the Terre Haute area at the Halcyon Gallery, Arts Illiana, the River City Arts Association, the Golden Frame and at the annual photo show at the Bicentennial Museum in Paris, Ill. A selection of his rock photography can be seen at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

“Photography is an act of pleasure for me,” Young said. “I’m a creator. I don’t have the type of personality to really push my work.”

When it comes to photographing the eclipses, Young likes to take the first 30 seconds after the eclipse begins to make sure his equipment is set up. “Once my cameras are set up, I want to concentrate on the immense beauty of the eclipse with my own eyes.”

The eclipse images have the appearance of black and white photos because the sun’s corona is white. Bits of color appearing on the edge of the sun’s disc are known as “prominences.”

Young has planned his next solar eclipse trip for March, 2015. He will travel to the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland.  

In 2017, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible in the central part of the United States, including Kentucky, Missouri, and Central Illinois.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Young said. “It’s the first time in my life that I will be able to witness an eclipse so close to home.”

Quick science lesson

• The totality of a solar eclipse as the moon completely goes across the sun takes about two hours, but the period of time that the disc of the sun is completely covered is only about three to four minutes, and toward the periphery of the path of the total eclipse of the disc there may only be 30 seconds of darkness. If much of a sliver of the sun is exposed, because sunlight is so powerful, it is still capable of casting shadows on earth.

• According to Young, an eclipse’s most brilliant aspect occurs when the sun’s disc is fully covered: “As soon as the sun is blackened, the brightest stars come out. It seems like nighttime. You can look directly at the sun without hurting your eyes during the time of totality. The sun’s corona can be twice the diameter of the sun itself. The brightness of the sky washes out the corona except during a total eclipse.”

Young’s photography

• People interested in seeing Spencer Young’s landscape photography can visit the Golden Frame at 509 Voorhees St. or call the store at 812-232-0048.

Online

• For more information about eclipse tours, see Ring of Fire Tours - Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Java or www.EclipseTours.com.