26 AND COUNTING / The Liebenberg Eclipse Chronicles / Part 3
By Jim Melvin
CLEMSON, South Carolina – Clemson University scientist Donald Liebenberg has personally witnessed and researched 26 total solar eclipses over the past 60-plus years.
Liebenberg, who has been an adjunct professor in the College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy since 1996, has literally travelled all over the world to enter the path of totality of solar eclipses. He has studied them from the ground, on ships in the middle of oceans, and in airplanes. He even watched one eclipse from the cabin of a Concorde supersonic airliner, where he was able to remain within the window of totality for an astounding 74 minutes.
Liebenberg’s third eclipse, chronicled below, was Oct. 2, 1959 in the Canary Islands. His last one was March 9, 2016 aboard the cruise ship MS Vollendam off the coast of Indonesia.
All told, Liebenberg has spent almost three hours in totality, which surpasses anyone else in the world.
The upcoming Aug. 21, 2017 event over Clemson will mark Liebenberg’s 27th eclipse. He has also witnessed several other eclipses that were nearly – but not quite – in the path of totality.
Today is the third chronicle of all 26 of Liebenberg’s eclipse adventures on our Eclipse Over Clemson blog.
Please sit back and continue to enjoy this amazing adventure.
Eclipse No. 3: Oct. 2, 1959 Totality: 2 minutes. 42 seconds
Where: Fuerteventura, Canary Islands Weather conditions: mostly cloudy
By Donald Liebenberg
The third eclipse I attended followed my second one by less than a year. Only this time, I switched oceans – from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Fuerteventura is in the Canary Island group, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa.
Our equipment was ready to go, and we joined the Sacramento Peak Observatory group in Sunspot, New Mexico. The U.S. Air Force would provide logistical support at the site.
I flew to Iceland, then to Glasgow, Scotland, and from there to Denmark and finally to Las Palmas, Grand Carnaria. The morning after I arrived in Las Palmas, I went for breakfast and ordered in Spanish. English wasn’t spoken there, but I had learned a little in an earlier trip to Mexico with an aunt and cousin. I was asked by the waitress if I could help a German sailor – who did not speak Spanish – order breakfast. It was like the blind leading the blind, but I did use my elementary German and Spanish to manage to get him breakfast.
But I still had to find a way to Fuerteventura Island without knowing much Spanish. I went down to the docks and found a small boat whose captain said he was going the Fuerteventura. He had no cabin for me, so I ended up sleeping on deck. In the morning, we arrived in Puerto del Rosario and I found a hotel that was supplied electricity via a diesel generator. At 9:30 p.m., the generator was shut down for the night, so I ate dinner by candlelight.
The next morning, I began my journey to the eclipse site. I hired a car and driver and we navigated a long, bumpy road before finally arriving at the Air Force site, where a temporary building for living, sleeping and eating had already been constructed. I was provided a cot for the duration of my stay. A second building had been constructed to house our equipment. Meals were prepared by a chef who had taken a course in physics from Enrico Fermi in Italy before World War II. He made delicious meals from Air Force single-ration tins. His helpers would sort through packages to find, for example, pork for a meal. The chef performed magic with sauces and spices. We ate well and easily adapted to the 12-4 p.m. siesta that was typical of the island lifestyle. After breakfast, I would work on the equipment. Then I would have lunch, take a nap, join others for soccer on the beach, work some more and have dinner. Still rested from the nap, I was able to work until after midnight and repeat the routine the following day.
It rarely rained and water was scarce, so we relied mostly on a private pond. The island had a ridge of mountains on its western side that dropped off sharply to the Atlantic. On its eastern side, the terrain sloped gradually to the ocean. This created two different types of climates on the same island. There was an abundance of plants on the western side and a desert with camels on the eastern side. Early on, I went with Air Force personnel in their jeep to the pond to collect water. But the pond was coated with scum, so I decided then and there that I would not drink from it. Fortunately, there was an alternative: the nearby island of Lanzarote produced a very light wine, and the Air Force stocked it in five-gallon glass jars. So, I would drink the wine and even brush my teeth with it, and I didn’t have a single drink of water for the few weeks we were on site. The chef prepared some soups with the pond water, but he boiled it first. My stubbornness paid off. I was about the only one of us who never developed gastrointestinal problems.
University of Wisconsin professor Julian Mack arrived for the eclipse, and he and I visited Dr. Harald von Kluber, a famous German astronomer. Dr. von Kluber had aced us out in 1958 by using an FPT with photography to get green line photos. But though we had been in a friendly competition of sorts, he still was very supportive of our efforts and had come to the island with his wife to view the eclipse from a rented villa not far from our site.
The eclipse occurred in the early afternoon. A group from Eastern Tennessee University arrived that morning, took their equipment from the shipping crate, took data during the eclipse, packed up their instruments and were ready to leave before the end of the partial phase. They were very well organized, to say the least. However, the day turned out to be mostly cloudy, and we all wore long faces as totality approached. Even though the skies never cleared, I insisted on carrying out our planned program of observations. That evening, when I developed the photographic plates and purposely pushed the development, I was rewarded by fringes of the green line. This was encouraging because it verified the calculations I had made on the intensity of the green line through the designed optics, filters and FPI. Still, poor weather had once again put a damper on our research.
My fourth eclipse would occur about four years later. But then, I had a wife and 15-month-old son who joined our expedition.
Up next: Part 4, May 22