March 29, 2006 -- For three hours this morning, a solar eclipse cast a shadow on part of our planet, thrilling a global audience from Brazil to Mongolia.
The proper term is "occultation" for that rare moment when Earth, moon and sun align perfectly. Those who happen to be standing in the moon's shadow observe bright sunlight turning to twilight over the course of just a few moments.
"You're there and the sun begins to disappear," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. "During the partial phases, you begin to see bites taken out of the sun."
This phenomenon drives devoted sky watchers to the best viewing spots, which often means "roughing it." The last solar eclipse, which occurred in November 2003, was best viewed from Antarctica. Libya experienced a rare tourism boom this week for the eclipse, and it was ready for it with tents and even a restaurant in the middle of the desert.
"Actually, eclipse expeditions is big business, and it's been going for decades now," Tyson said. "You're going halfway around the world to see something that lasts four minutes."
But not everyone is entertained -- some are scared. African governments have tried to ease superstitious fears. A 2001 lunar eclipse turned deadly when a Nigerian mob rioted against those thought to be responsible for the moon's disappearance. Some still believe that holding a knife during an eclipse will cause you to cut yourself. And in India, a newspaper reportedly warned pregnant women to stay inside or risk giving their babies blindness or a cleft lip.
"Unfortunately, even in modern times there are cultures that don't have access to this insight into how the solar system works," Tyson said. "It's understandable that as the sun begins to disappear, people begin to become deeply concerned and worry that the sun will never come back."