Friday 12 July 2013

No Friday Photograph

For anyone who writes a web log, or at least tries to do so regularly, you will know that it is a lot of work. Sure, the first few weeks are easy, as there are lots of ideas. And when it is busy, that is also pretty straight forward... assuming you can find a spare moment to upload all the interesting material!

However, then there are the quieter times. During summer vacations. And during long stretches of routine observing, with no site visits, no interesting results, and that plot you were preparing still needs more work (yes, it really does need more work). It is at these times that the web log is tough going. Here at KAIRA, we've been trying to keep a average of five posts a week ever since we've been operational. This has been easy at some times, especially during the build, but just now... hmm... difficult.

So as I was trawling through photographs looking for something (anything!) to post today, it occurred to me that perhaps I should write about something for which there is no photograph.

The other day, I caught a programme about the Secret Life of the Sun. It was a documentary about the Sun, its energy processes and how they affect the Earth. It was an interesting programme, but one thing that caught my attention was when one of the presenters was describing a total solar eclipse. This, of course, is when the Sun's disc is completely covered by the Moon, thus allowing the corona to be seen. For a brief moment, the surroundings are plunged into a special night: the birds sing evensong, the air cools noticably, the shadows sharpen, and then all is dark and the Sun's atmosphere is the only source of illumination. The presented ask how could anyone not be moved by such a spectacle.


I've seen a total solar eclipse. And while I would say it was very nice, and interesting to watch and all, would I call it `moving'? Hmm. No. Not really. Does that mean that I am cold and heartless and untouched by the beauty of the natural world? No. I have seen many moving sights during my time. And the thing that I would call the most moving would be a truly spectacular auroral display.

I've seen a few very good displays, but there was one that really struck at the heart. It was in early 2006 and I was on Svalbard. The EISCAT radar operator, a couple of observers and I were driving back from the radar down to the settlement of Longyearbyen. As we drove along the snowy flats in the polar darkness, the operator (who was driving) slowed down and stopped the vehicle. `It looks like this aurora might be bright', he said. `Shall we take a look?'. Of course we agreed.

For the next 20-30 minutes the sky was set ablaze. The streamers and curtains of blue-green light were vivid, dynamic and full of intricacy. I would almost described them as fractal, in the sense that at the largest scales and the smallest, there was movement, detail and colour. And around the edges, wisps of the most incredible shades of indigo-violet flickered and leapt in keeping with the sweeps and whorls of the main display.

On my eyelashes were frozen tear drops.

No-one said a word, and even after the display had passed and had vanished over the horizon, we all still stood there awestruck. No one said anything for many minutes until, as if by secret cue, we got back into the vehicle without a word and, shivering, we drove the remainder of the way to Longyearbyen in silence.

There are no photographs for this. No photograph has yet captured the dynamic range of an aurora. The movement, the changes in shade and brightness. On a photograph, they are blurred out. There is no context. Even the colours are often wrong, being some parrot green, just because the CCD chips in modern digital cameras cannot cope with pure monochromaticism from the different transitions in the aurora.

Yes, I could drag out some old photograph or find a stock image on the web, but it would not be the same.

Thus, for today, there is no photograph.

On the images indelibly etched in my mind's eye.

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