Of Solar Eclipses

On Monday, August 21st, 2017, the continental United States will experience its first total eclipse of the Sun since 1979. If the rarity of such an event weren’t enough to make it exceedingly special, the trajectory of this particular eclipse makes it even more exciting. The path of totality will cross the country from coast to coast, starting off in Newport, Oregon, and setting off in Charleston, South Carolina, giving millions of people a chance to experience the phenomenon.

Created with GIMPCredit: NASA

Some people might still be wondering what the big deal is. Well, there are several reasons to be excited. First of all, “not all eclipses are made equal. The most spectacular, the one for your bucket list, is a total eclipse of the Sun.” At least that’s what Joss Fong, editorial producer at Vox and one of my favorite content creators, says in the video below. Second, animals seem to freak out about solar eclipses, which is entertaining in and of itself. And third, full solar eclipses only happen where you live about once every 375 years. So unless you travel to seek them out, chances are you will never experience one. There are, in fact, eclipse chasers who travel the world to witness these events, and their accounts have convinced me that I need to see at least one total solar eclipse in my lifetime.


Now, if you looked at the map, it’s clear that Burlington, Vermont, where I live, is pretty far from the path of totality. Folks here will only witness a partial eclipse, with the moon blocking about 70% of the Sun. And if you watched the video of the eclipse chasers, you’ve heard that there is simply no comparison between experiencing totality and non-totality. They say that even a 99% partial eclipse can’t hold a candle to the full thing. Given all of this information, I briefly considered making the trip down south next Monday. But due to costs, timing, and other obligations, I decided against it.

I was initially disappointed, but when I looked into future total solar eclipses, my spirits were lifted. The next two events, both in 2019 and 2020, will cross Patagonia, a place that is already on my bucket list. Could it be an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone? I imagine the region would provide stunning settings for such an event.

Eclipses_over_South_America_2001-2050Credit: EclipseMaps.com

But even if I don’t find myself in Chile or Argentina in 2019 or 2020, it appears another eclipse will cross the U.S. in 2024, and evidently it will pass right over Burlington! Coincidentally, it’ll also go over Kenyon College, my alma mater in Gambier, Ohio and current home of my brother. Here’s a blurb from the college describing the curious situation it will find itself in during the eclipse (Source: Kenyon College):

On April 8, 2024, Gambier will actually be right on the edge of the path of totality during an eclipse. That means south campus will experience a partial eclipse, while north campus will experience a very brief total solar eclipse.

Eclipse2024_ MapCredit: GreatAmericanEclipse.com

Evidently the stars will align (well, in this case, a star, a planet and a moon) so that I have a good chance to experience this unique phenomenon sometime in the next few years. I’ll just need to plan accordingly. I already have my eclipse glasses ready. As my wife would say, “what luck!”


Of Kenyon College

This past May, immediately after the trip described in the previous post, I drove up to Kenyon for my five-year college reunion. It had been over two years since my last visit, the longest I had been away since graduation. For anyone debating whether or not they should go to their class reunion, I would definitely say that it’s worth it.

Photos courtesy of Kenyon College Alumni

It’s always a thrill for me to go back, and I could probably fill several blog posts with stories from my time at Kenyon. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and I want to use this post mostly to share some campus photos that I’ve accumulated over time.

In the past few years, Kenyon has gotten some recognition appearing in several lists ranking the most beautiful college campuses in America (Forbes, thebestcolleges.org, travelandleisure.com). Forbes went on to list it among the most beautiful in the world. This year, Kenyon has gotten even more attention due to Josh Radnor‘s new movie “Liberal Arts,” which was filmed at Kenyon.

I’m no Chris D’Ardenne when it comes to photography skills, and almost all of my pictures were taken with a simple Sony Cybershot, but there are some good ones. So here they are, hope you enjoy them! I call this gallery Kenyon College in Four Seasons:


(First semester at Kenyon, October 2003)


(Christmas ice storm, December 2004)


(Graduation week, May 2007)


(Five years later, June 2012)

I would be remiss if I didn’t include photos of the two places where I spent most of my time at Kenyon. Ernst pool (left) wasn’t the most glamorous, but it served us well during my first two and a half years. And the KAC natatorium, inaugurated in the second half of my junior year, is an aesthetic masterpiece and still my favorite pool. I suppose you could say I was spoiled during my college years. It’s no wonder why Kenyon is one of my favorite places in the world…

Of The World

For ages people have been describing and documenting spectacular sites, structures and phenomena on Earth. Herodotus (Greek historian, 484 BC – 425 BC) and Calimachus of Cyrene (chief of the Library of Alexandria, 305 – 240 BC) are said to have come up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.1 Much more recently, several others have been compiled, listing the new wonders, the natural wonders, wonders of the underwater world, wonders of the industrial world etc.2 Oddly enough, while there are clearly way too many wonders to cram into a rigid list, people still seem to be attached to the number seven. I prefer to leave the number of wonders open-ended, which in part explains the name of this blog.

In this post, I want to write about a brief experience where I got to witness a few of the wonders of the world. When I left Australia at the end of May, I had to go through a crazy itinerary before I landed at my final destination: Sydney-Shanghai-Beijing-Los Angeles-Denver-Atlanta. The total trip took about 50 hours (I had a 12 hour layover at the Beijing airport) and I would never want to do it again, except for one reason: never in my life have I seen so many distinct, unique, amazing views in such a short period of time.

It started with the flight from Sydney to Shanghai, when I looked out the window and saw the Great Barrier Reef (one of the world’s natural wonders!). I knew that during my travels I was going to see it up close, but I wasn’t expecting the aerial view as well. I didn’t have my camera with me, so I don’t have any pictures of my own. These two below look like they’re from a low-flying plane or helicopter, so it’s not actually what I saw. But I suppose they give you an idea.


The next surprise came soon after taking off from Beijing. Not knowing much about Chinese geography, I was just looking out the window, watching as we flew over some mountains. Then all of a sudden I saw a wall lining the top of the mountain chain. Hours after seeing the Great Barrier Reef, I was looking at another wonder of the world: The Great Wall of China.

I still had no camera, so I’m stealing photos from the internet. The view I had looked a lot like the picture on the left. The one on the right looks cooler though, so I included it.

Photos by Johanna Loock and historum.com, respectively.

But that was only the beginning of what would be a pretty remarkable flight. After a while we were asked to close the shutters on the windows so that people could sleep. I tried, and probably dozed off a few times, but I can never get comfortable on airplane seats. I was awake for most of the flight.

There weren’t any screens showing our flight path, so I had no idea what route we were taking to get to LA. Midway through the flight I opened the shutter, and to my astonishment there was floating ice everywhere! I wouldn’t have guessed it looking at a flat map, but apparently the shortest way from China to California is through the Bering Strait:


At that point I was seriously regretting not having my camera. I could have gotten up from my window seat and tried to find it in my carry-on luggage, but there were people in the way, and the window was kind of foggy, and I had already missed taking pictures of the reef and the wall… I decided to just look out and try to ingrain the views in my memory. Below are a few more stolen pictures that look similar to the view I had.

Photos by Ashley Pollak and Claire Parkinson, respectively.

The sun was going down as I looked out, so I decided I would watch it set and then try to get some more sleep. But it tricked me. It got slower and slower as it went down. Then it looked like it was just going to sit there on the horizon. And finally it it started to rise again! I had always wanted to see that happen, but again, since I didn’t really know how far north I was, I wasn’t expecting it. This twenty-second video in no way does it justice, but it’s an example of the sun never setting in the Arctic:

Once I got to LAX, I had to literally run to get my bags, go through immigration, take the bus to the opposite terminal, check in again, and finally get through security and to my gate. Somehow I made it while they were still boarding.

I was dazed from the day and a half of flying already, and again didn’t even think about the flight path from LA to Denver. But as it turns out, my aerial sightseeing was not over yet. I was about to fly directly above Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and of course, the Rockies.


I wasn’t looking out the whole time, so I missed Las Vegas and Hoover Dam. But the view of the Grand Canyon (another natural wonder!) was amazing, and I definitely saw a massive dam at Lake Powell, which I assumed was Glen Canyon Dam. Coincidently, I had been to both those places as a kid, so this time I have my own pictures:

The Rockies were also impressive, but I’m going to leave it up to your imagination this time. And the flight from Denver to Atlanta was during the night, so I couldn’t see anything. I don’t think there was anything spectacular on that route anyway. At least nothing compared to what I had already seen.

One of my favorite television shows is BBC’s Planet Earth, so you can imagine how in awe I was during this trip. It turned out to be the most unexpected and surreal sightseeing experience of my life. Hard to believe that you can see so much in such a short amount of time. And all it does is make me want to see more of the several wonders of the world…

Of Australia

The trip to Australia was different from New Zealand in many ways. The first major difference was that we didn’t have a car, so we were much more dependent on mass transit and our legs. This also meant that we didn’t stray too far from urban centers.

We had three main destinations: The Sydney area in New South Wales, and in which I’m including Bondi Beach, the Blue Mountains and Newcastle; The Great Barrier Reef area in Queensland; and Melbourne in Victoria.

We flew into Sydney from Auckland, and then immediately took a train to Newcastle to meet up with Wini at her aunt’s apartment (the bottom left picture below is the view from her balcony!). During our time in New Zealand we only got in the ocean once (in Wellington, jumping from a pier), so the beaches around Newcastle made a great first impression on me.

You can see a couple of coal ships in the picture on the top right. Usually there were several of them lined up, waiting for their turn enter Newcastle’s port, which is currently the largest coal exporting harbour in the world. The bottom right picture is from Blackbutt Reserve, where we got to feed a Koala. They also had kangaroos, emu, wallabies etc.

One of the mornings, we got up early to see the sunrise (top left) from the Newcastle Ocean Baths. It was kind of cloudy and even sprinkling a bit, but there was just enough of an opening along the horizon to make it spectacular. And because of the humidity, for a brief while we saw a double rainbow all the way across the sky! We were almost as excited as this guy.

Eventually we took a train back to Sydney. Our hostel was right next to Kings Cross station, which despite a couple of warnings, was a perfectly safe place to wander around. It gets lively at night, with a lot of young people on the street, so there really wasn’t much to worry about.

On our first full day we waked through the Finger Wharf, which has some fancy bars, to get to the Royal Botanic Gardens. I like plants, so I’m biased, but I was really impressed with it. Besides the awesome variety of gardens and plants, you get a great view of the city from there, and the opera house is adjacent to it. We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, walking around the harbour, crossing the bridge etc. At one point we stopped for food, and I got a bowl of fruit salad. It was way better than I expected! Seriously, Australia has great fruit!

The next day we took the subway line to Bondi Beach. It wasn’t even a warm day and there were lots of people around, so I can imagine it being packed in the summer.We walked along the Beach Pacific Trail which went along the coast and ran from Bondi beach to Coogee. If you like beaches, pools built right on the edge of the coastline, and really fit people, then this is a great place for you.

The last two pictures in the gallery below are of the aquatic center from the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It was the first Olympics that I followed closely, and though it was supposed to be Ian Thorpe‘s games, what that pool will always remind me of is Pieter van den Hoogenband beating Thorpe in the 200 free, and then breaking the 48 second barrier in the 100 free.

From Sydney we flew to Cairns and then took a shuttle to Port Douglas. Our two goals were to take a boat ride out to the Great Barrier Reef, and a tour of the Daintree rainforest. Luckily we were able to book both those things once we arrived, and the tour company threw in a sunset cruise for free!

At the reef, they encouraged everyone to wear wet suits to help keep warm and for protection in case there were any jellyfish. The boat made three different stops where people could snorkel or scuba dive. What I was really hoping to see in the reefs was a sea turtle. I’ve seen them a few times popping their heads up at the beach in Brazil, but never underwater, swimming around. There were none to be seen that day though.

For me the boat rides are just as fun as the snorkeling. The sunset cruise was particularly cool, since we were on a sail boat rather than the 80 person motor-driven vessel from the reef tour. And the wind really picked up in the evenings, so we were moving pretty fast in the choppy waters.

One of the things that I really liked about northern Australia was the tropical weather. There was so much rain while I was in New Zealand that it rarely got up to 25°C in the summer, and in the spring it was mostly below 20°C. So to feel the warmth of 30°C was really nice.

Our luck with the weather continued through our last full day in Port Douglas. The first picture below is of the Daintree river flowing out into the ocean. We also saw endangered cassowaries out in the wild, and the tour guide insisted on telling us how lucky we were since they were rarer than pandas. Definitely not as adorable as pandas though. The mangroves were filled with all kinds of colorful crabs, and the rivers were home to some massive crocodiles.

After flying back to Sydney, we took a day to check out the Blue Mountains. Wikipedia explains where the name comes from:

The name Blue Mountains is derived from the blue tinge the range takes on when viewed from a distance. The tinge is believed to be caused by mie scattering which occurs when incoming ultraviolet radiation is scattered by particles within the atmosphere creating a blue-greyish colour to any distant objects, including mountains and clouds. Volatile terpenoids emitted in large quantities by the abundant eucalyptus trees in the Blue Mountains may cause mie scattering and thus the blue haze for which the mountains were named.

I really wanted to see a concert at the Sydney Opera House while I was there, and was thrilled when I found pretty cheap tickets to see Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2, performed by Andreas Haefliger and the Sydney Symphony. We sat in the last row of the concert hall, but the distance did not diminish the experience in the slightest. It was Wini’s last night before she had to fly back to San Francisco, so we popped some champagne to celebrate before the concert started.

After Wini left, Joey and I had 11 days left in Aussie and no real plans. We found an overnight bus going to Melbourne and decided to get on it. We arrived at the bus station in Melbourne the next day at 6:00am, when it was still dark. Apparently our luck with the weather had run out. It was cold, and while we were walking around in the morning, it started pouring. To avoid the rain, we hopped on the free tourist shuttle, which goes around the city’s main tourist attractions. Eventually we took shelter in the National Gallery of Victoria. The painting of the sheep shearing (below) was amusing to me, considering how much of it I had seen in the previous couple of months. Joey and I both took naps in the room with the colored glass ceiling.

Once we got over the exhaustion from the night spent on a bus, a night in an awful smelling hostel, and the bad weather, we actually started to really enjoy Melbourne. In many ways the city made me think of Batman. And I’m not convinced that it’s just my imagination. First of all, that building in the pictures below looks like it has batman ears. Secondly, a city that names its parks and roads after Batman seems like it definitely has some sort of devotion to Gotham.

Anyway, the views below are from the rooftop of the second hostel we stayed at, which was incredible (yes, there was a hot tub up there!). If you are ever in Melbourne, it’s called the Space Hotel (it was a hotel that was converted into a hostel) and I highly recommend it.

The Melbourne Museum was my favorite place down there. It’s the largest museum in the southern hemisphere and has galleries on everything from natural sciences, to arts, culture and history. I would go as far as comparing it to the Natural History Museum of London, which is the best I’ve ever been to.

Adjacent to the museum is the IMAX theater, where we watched Dark Shadows on the third largest screen in the world. And across from it is the Royal Exhibition Building. We didn’t go in that one, but it looks cool from the outside.

I originally saw a few University of Melbourne buildings in town and was really unimpressed, thinking that the entire school was comprised within them. But I completely changed my mind when we found the rest of the university. It’s actually a really nice campus, with lots of space and great architecture. Definitely seems like a good place to study.

My second favorite place in Melbourne was the State Library of Victoria, which was actually just two blocks from our hostel. Since we ended up staying almost a full week in Melbourne, we spent a lot of time in there catching up on the internet, reading and generally using it as refuge from the rain.

When we did have good weather, we would try to be outside. On one of our last days there, we took a bus across the river to see Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Garden (which doesn’t compare to the one in Sydney), and the Shrine of Remembrance, from which you get a nice 360 degree view at the top.

In the end, Melbourne became one of my new favorite cities. It has a great vibe to it, with awesome architecture, great museums, a really cool music scene and sporting events like the Australian Open for tennis, the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, and all kinds of soccer and rugby matches. For me, the only downside was the cold, but I suppose if you’re dying for better weather, you can always go up to Sydney where it’s warmer and the beaches are nicer.

When it was time to leave, we once again took the overnight, eleven-hour bus back to Sydney. We got there in the morning, and continued to Newcastle, where we had left some luggage with Wini’s aunt. When she wasn’t feeding us all kinds of delicious food, she liked showing us around. So one day we drove with her up to Shoal Bay, where we did a short hike up a mountain, and took in yet another great view.

I realize the irony of spending three months in New Zealand, and then just three weeks in a country which is almost thirty times larger, but that’s just how it worked out. While I feel like I was able to see the majority of what I would have liked to see in New Zealand, I know that I’ll have to go back to Australia if I want to experience it completely. There’s still much more to see there.

But I do believe that we were able to capture and appreciate a lot of what each country has to offer during our travels. In New Zealand, the stunning emptiness and natural beauty of the South Island is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In Australia, the richer diversity of species that comes with being a much older continent helps create its own brand of natural beauty. Combined with the liveliness of its cities, friendliness of its people, and allure of its climate and beaches, it is without question worth a trip to the antipodes. My recommendation is that if you’re in that part of the world, you might as well visit both…

Of Hawke’s Bay

Three months after my last post (wow, time flies), I’ve decided to write again and try to catch up. I’ll start by wrapping up the New Zealand trip, which ended on April 30th. This post is dedicated to some of the leisure activities that filled my time while I was in Hawke’s Bay:

Hot-tubbing: The Withingtons have a hot tub (or a spa as they call it) at the back of their house. It was magical, especially when the weather was cool in the evenings. Sometimes Kerren would bring us wine and cheese. And grapes! We felt like kings.

Rugby: Nope, I never played. You have to be built like a tank if you want to succeed in that sport, and I am no tank. So I just watched. The pictures below are from a Crusaders game in Napier. Their mascots like to crusade around the field before the game. Unfortunately for them they did not conquer anything that night.

Biking: I once rode from Hastings to the beach. It was about 15km to get there, but I got lost trying to find the bike trails (in the end I found out that that particular path doesn’t really exist, so I rode mostly on the highway). I also had a flat tire at one point which I had to pump at a petrol station, so in the end it was considerably more than 15km. Including the return trip, I would estimate that I rode about 40km that day. For the avid biker this might be a nice warm up. For me it was devastating (especially for one specific part of my anatomy). On my way back, I stopped at an orchard and took (i.e. stole) a dozen apples, rationalizing that I had somehow earned them.

Triathloning: Well, it was a relay, so I only did the swimming portion. I was unshaved and untapered… and generally just unprepared. My race strategy was to distance myself from the crowd, and then try to maintain the lead. So I took it out as fast as I could (that’s me out in front!). After about 200 meters things started to hurt and after 400 my muscles refused to cooperate with my brain. Add to that the fact that I couldn’t really see where I was going, and you can imagine that most of the race was not pretty – a lot of head-up freestyle (looking for marker buoys), a little bit of zig-zagging, and sloppy strokes. But I managed to stumble out and tag my teammate. And Marc gave me a blue Powerade at the end, so I was happy.

Off-roading: On our last weekend in NZ, Ken took us to Cape Kidnappers. We went during low tide, so that he could drive along the beach. I still have no idea how he managed to get the Toyota through some of those rocks. Pretty impressive driving.

Besides the obvious beauty of the beach and cliffs, if you like birds, this is a great place to see an Australasian gannet colony.

The time I spent in New Zealand was priceless. And there’s no way it could have happened without the generosity of Ken and Kerren Withington. So once again, I owe them a huge thank you! And to the readers, if you are ever in Hawke’s Bay, make sure you contact Black Rose! They are amazing people and will definitely give you a great tour of the area…

Of South Island: Northbound

The last two days of the trip were spent getting back to Hastings. We went from Dunedin to Christchurch on the first day, and then tackled the much longer route from Christchurch to Hastings on the following day.

We began the return on Sunday, exactly two weeks after our road trip had begun.The drive to Christchurch was an uneventful one, though we did stop to get a look at the Moeraki boulders:

The next day, we got an early start, hitting the road at 7am so that we could make it to Picton in time to catch our ferry. Besides driving through a hail storm, there wasn’t too much to be excited about during this drive either. It was just a long day.

The boat ride was a nice break that split the driving portion in half. And this time we did it during the day, so the observation deck was open. Below you can see us crossing another Interislander ferry, identical to the one we were on:

The wind farm past Palmerston North was a welcome sight, as it told us that we were getting close. As we drove down the hills, the sun disappeared behind them. Combined with the crescent moon and the handful of stars that were popping up, it felt like an appropriate setting to bring our journey to a close…

Of South Island: Southern Scenic Route

We were in no rush to leave the next morning. The plan was to drive on the Southern Scenic Route, stopping at about halfway in Invercargill for the night, and then continuing the next day to Dunedin.

Joey and I knew that our trip had peaked at Milford, and was going to start winding down from then on. Even the weather seemed to be telling us so when we woke up. The day started out really grey, with a lot of cloud cover. Yet by the time we hit Manapouri, just 20km south of Te Anau, it had started to clear up.

We stopped by Lake Manapouri and watched as the mist quickly disappeared within the short time we were there. I guess the Maori gods gave us one last gift before we left the place. We stood there for a while, staring longingly at Fiordland, already missing it:

At this point I actually started contemplating the fact that cruises to Doubtful Sound left from Manapouri. From what I had read, it was ten times the size of Milford, and probably just as glorious. But you have to cross Lake Manapouri and then a stretch of land in order to get there, so the tourism companies charge a lot more for this trip. In the end, it was more daydreaming than seriously considering another cruise. So unfortunately there are no more dolphin videos from this trip, just a few more pictures of the lake:

As a side note, some of the tour companies make a stop at the Manapouri Power Station. There, water passing from Lake Manapouri into Doubtful Sound is captured underground, powering the largest hydroelectric station in New Zealand. Here’s a rough scheme showing the flow of water:

As far as the Southern Scenic Route, once you pass Manapouri, it doesn’t compare to the drives we had done previously. We had expected this, so we weren’t really disappointed. One stop we did enjoy was McCracken’s Rest, which was on the way to Invercargill, shortly after the highway reaches the coastline:

Related to the note I made above, Joey and I saw a big industrial complex across the bay from Bluff, which we later found out was the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, the biggest consumer of energy from the Manapouri Power Station. I had no idea aluminium smelting consumed so much energy. Coincidentally, a few days later I saw this Ted Talk about renewable energy, where the speaker talks about how aluminum smelting led him to create some sort of crazy efficient battery.

Anyway, before I lose too many of you by writing about power stations and aluminium smelting, here are a few pictures of Bluff, and Joey playing with giant seaweed:

The Southern Scenic Route ended in Dunedin, which is home to the main campus of the University of Otago. We spent the weekend with Jayden and Callum, both of whom are students there. It was an eventful visit, but since these posts are more about the scenery of the South Island, I’ll stop here for now…