Science + Stories: a creative-writing competition for the 2017 US eclipse

For most of human history, solar eclipses have been unexpected and terrifying events. All over the world, across all cultures and societies, people have reacted to these hair-raising experiences in a very human way. They have made up stories to explain why the sun sometimes vanishes in the middle of the day.

Image: Neil Pitts

In China they told the story of a heavenly dog who tries to eat the sun. Many South American tribes believed eclipses were caused by a giant bird attacking the sun. In North America, the Nuxalk people, who live in the area around Bella Coola in Canada, thought eclipses occur when the sun (rather carelessly) drops his torch.

These myths and stories form an important part of human history. They are some of our earliest attempts to explain the mysteries of the universe.

Today we know precisely when eclipses will happen. That’s good news for us, because it means we don’t have to run around being terrified. For storytellers, however, it’s bad news, because we no longer have the chance to invent tales to try and make sense of what’s going on.

Until now…

Science + Stories

Together with the North Platte Bulletin and A to Z Books, we’re running a creative-writing competition called Science + Stories. We’re challenging young people in west central Nebraska to write their own version of an eclipse myth.

Entries can be up to 150 words long, and there are four age groups. The winners will be the stories that show the greatest originality and creativity, and the winning authors will receive a copy of the National Geographic Space Encyclopedia.

The Great American Eclipse

The total solar eclipse of August 21st 2017 will cross the US from coast to coast. The path of totality (the very narrow, dark orange strip in the map below) runs through 14 states: Oregon, Idaho, Montana (a tiny bit), Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa (a tiny bit), Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

In the town of North Platte, Nebraska, totality will last for 1 minute 40 seconds, starting at 12:54 pm local time. (Many North Platte residents will be travelling 30 miles north of the town to the ‘central line’ of the eclipse, where totality will last for two-and-a-half minutes.)


The whole of North America – together with the upper part of South America, plus a tiny bit of western Europe – will experience a partial solar eclipse.

How a solar eclipse made Einstein famous

Images: Wikimedia / CC-PD-Mark

We all know the genius on the left. But who is the genius on the right…?

My latest article for Sky & Telescope magazine asks: “Why do some great scientists become household names, whereas others do not? Why, these days, does everyone in the world know who Einstein is (and what he looked like)? On the other hand, when we do a Google search for ‘Maxwell’, why does the scientist who unified electricity, magnetism and light appear below a musician with the same name? The answers to these questions will lead us to a solar eclipse that took place across South America and Africa 98 years ago.”

“A need to know and increased motivation to learn”

“For cranking motivation levels up to eleven, nothing says ‘teachable moment’ like a solar eclipse…” Sky & Telescope magazine has an article about our science outreach project in Angola :)

A perfect week in Angola. Except one thing…

Obrigado Huambo! Our Global Communication and Science project to mark the February 26th annular eclipse in the city of Huambo was a huge success – despite the fact that, just before the eclipse started, a thunderstorm descended upon the central highlands of Angola and blocked our view of events in the sky…

Sky & Telescope logo

In the week leading up to the eclipse, our hosts in Huambo, the Instituto Superior de Ciências de Educação (ISCED), put together a brilliant programme that included school visits, public workshops and media interviews.

Huambo Angola

At the Escola Comandante Bula, students had a go at creating a scale model of the earth-moon-sun system. There were also a lot of questions – a lot of questions! – about astronomy, space and science.

Escola Comandante Bula

We could not have done any of this without the support of our sponsors:, our magnificent lead sponsor, and NCR Angola, who generously sponsored the eclipse glasses we gave away to members of the community.

Eclipse glasses

The day of the eclipse began with bright sunshine and beautiful skies.


Our observation site at ISCED quickly drew a inquisitive and enthusiastic crowd – who had lots more great questions about eclipses!


Thirty minutes before first contact – the moment when the moon took its first ‘bite’ out of the sun – we did a live broadcast with the astronomy network Slooh. (A big thank you to Tricia Ennis and Paul Cox at Slooh for making this happen.) You can click the video below to watch our segment.

But, shortly after that, the thunderstorm struck, and we were forced inside…


ISCED’s lecture theatre was packed out for an impromptu seminar using’s live feed of the eclipse from other locations in the southern hemisphere.


Annularity – when the sun formed a ‘ring of fire’ around the moon – occurred at 5:28 pm local time. Alas, all we can report is that it definitely got darker!


Despite the disappointment with the weather, it was an amazing week of educational activities. I am tremendously grateful to the outstanding team at ISCED, including, from left to right below, Eugenio Calei, Mário Rodrigues, Neto Rangel and Ndjimi Malaka.


We would also like to thank the Angolan Ministry of Higher Education and the Provincial Government of Huambo for supporting this project.

Africa gets ready for another sun and moon show


The Mail & Guardian Africa has published a piece about next weekend’s African eclipse, and our Angolan “Global Communication and Science” project.


Classroom activity for Angolan schools

Solar eclipses are teachable moments! We’ve created a 45-minute classroom activity for school teachers in Angola, which can be downloaded below as a PDF in English or Portuguese.


It’s part of our Global Communication and Science project to mark the Angolan solar eclipse on February 26th: we’re running a public workshop/seminar at the Instituto Superior de Ciências de Educação (ISCED) in the city of Huambo; we’re giving away eclipse glasses to members of the community; and we’re doing a live broadcast with the astronomy network Slooh.

We’re extremely grateful to, our lead sponsor, and NCR Angola, who are sponsoring our eclipse glasses. We’ve also had tremendous support from the Angolan Ministry of Higher Education, and the Provincial Government of Huamb0.

Our classroom activity is called “Space is enormous!”, or “O espaço é enorme!”. It tackles a popular misconception – that the earth, moon and sun are similar size, and close together in space – by asking schoolchildren to imagine the earth was 10 cm across. It also challenges pupils to think about questions such as: why don’t solar eclipses happen every month…?

You can download the activity here:


We’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Mário José da Costa Rodrigues, Ndjimi Dumba Watembo Malaka and the rest of the outstanding team at ISCED. Enormous thanks also to Paul Cox, Tricia Ennis and all the other incredible people at Slooh.


NCR Angola supports solar eclipse project

We are tremendously grateful to NCR Angola, the leader in Angola’s information-technology sector, who are sponsoring solar eclipse glasses to give away to members of the community in Huambo later this month.


On February 26th the city of Huambo, in Angola’s central highlands, will experience an annular solar eclipse, where the sun forms a ‘ring of fire’ around the moon. We’re running a Global Communication and Science project at the Instituto Superior de Ciências de Educação do Huambo. Our lead sponsor is; we’re also working with the astronomy website Slooh, the Angolan Ministry of Higher Education, and the Provincial Government of Huambo.

NCR Angola has given its support to the project by sponsoring eclipse glasses for local community members. The company is one of Angola’s most respected blue-chip firms, with a network of IT retail stores, and a business unit providing IT management and consultancy services.

Eduardo Lobato, NCR’s Operations Manager, said:

“The February 26th eclipse creates an exciting and important educational opportunity. Over the past year we’ve been focussed on strengthening our relationship with universities and students, in an effort to promote the values of innovation and technology, and support developments in Angola’s education sector.” to sponsor Angolan eclipse project

Our next Global Communication and Science project will be taking place in Angola. We’ll be in Huambo, Angola’s second city, where there will be an annular solar eclipse on February 26th 2017.

angola-26-febAbove: the path of annularity across Angola on February 26th. An annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon is too far away to cover the sun completely – the result is a ‘ring of fire’ around the moon. (Image: NASA)

The Instituto Superior de Ciências de Educação do Huambo (ISCED) will be our hosts. We’re working on a range of educational and public outreach activities to mark the eclipse, including a live broadcast with the astronomy website Slooh. We are tremendously grateful to Mário José da Costa Rodrigues and his outstanding team at ISCED, and to Paul Cox and all the brilliant and inspiring people at Slooh. We would also like to record our sincere thanks to the Ministry of Higher Education of Angola, and the Provincial Government of Huambo.


We’re also very proud to announce that – a leading website for eclipse information – is sponsoring this project. Steffen Thorsen, the Chief Executive Officer of Time and Date AS (the company that manages, said:

“We are very excited about this collaboration, and we are inspired by Graham Jones’s efforts to educate and reach out to the people of Angola. The local efforts will be presented globally to people worldwide with free live images of this solar eclipse, in addition to all the eclipse information already available on our website. People everywhere will be able to follow the annular eclipse in Angola as it happens, and we hope to inspire people of all ages about the wonders of eclipses.”


According to statistics from Alexa, Quantcast and Compete, is easily the biggest time zone-related website in the world. According to media reviews, it is also the best: “a brilliant resource,” says BBC News. offers in-depth articles and infographics on the science of eclipses, and shows information for all eclipses on all continents from 1900 to 2099.

On this day: November 24th 1859

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection is published in London.

Image: lauramusikanski, Morguefile

“Charles Darwin’s book is one of the very few books that can be said to have really changed the way we all look at the world,” notes Adam Douglas of Peter Harrington, a rare books firm.

One of the remarkable things about the book is its style. As Adam Douglas points out, it is written in “a conversational way, so that it was accessible to the general public”. Stephen Jay Gould, the late palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, puts it like this:

Over the years, many of my graduate students in evolutionary biology, after reading and enjoying Darwin’s Origin of Species, then ask me, “Fine, I’ve now read the popular version, but where is the technical work that Darwin wrote for professionals before he watered down the Origin for lay readers?” I tell them that no such document exists, and that Darwin chose to present the greatest discovery in the history of biological thought as a volume for all intelligent readers.


Images from nature: the crescent sun

Great picture from Eriky Haritsaratiaray taken during the partial phase of this month’s annular solar eclipse across central and eastern Africa. The leaves on a tree are forming natural ‘pinhole projectors’ and producing images of the crescent sun on the ground…


Eriky is a student at the University of Mahajanga in Madagascar, and he’s done a brilliant job helping organise our “Global Communication and Science” project this year. Thank you, Eriky!