National Geographic : 1949 Mar
Operation Eclipse: 1948 BY WILLIAM A. KINNEY THE National Geographic Society, long a patron of astronomical research, went eclipse hunting on an unprecedented scale in 1948, tracking the always spectacular blackout of the sun across one-fifth of the earth. This "Operation Eclipse" set a new high in coordinated scientific endeavor. Never before had a single organization undertaken such an ambitious and complicated venture to study solar phenomena. The project called for multiple expeditions posted along a far-flung arc stretching north eastward from Burma to the Aleutians. The latest scientific equipment, modern aircraft, and the old reliable native bearers all have a place in the story. In its essence, the eclipse operation of May 8 and 9 was a calculated scientific gamble on 149 seconds spun out along a 5,320-mile path from monsoon-drenched jungles to the snow and fog of the sub-Arctic. The eclipse would take five hours to traverse that path. But the seconds that counted most were 35 seconds in Burma, 32 in Siam, six in China, a single second in Korea, two in Japan, 22 and 27 for the most likely pair of outposts in the western Aleutians, and finally 24 seconds for the aircraft operating aloft in Aleutian skies. A "Calculated Risk" This calculated risk was decided upon 11 months before the 149 seconds came due, and many more months may elapse before the ultimate results of the expeditions are known. The entire operation demanded imagination, meticulous planning, and long weeks of study and preparation. But even planning can have its bold moments, and a historic one came with the decision to utilize the eclipse for testing a trail-blazing aerial technique for astronomical research. Careful as the planners were, they could not anticipate everything, and the unexpected contributed surprises. No one, for example, foresaw that the arrival of one eclipse party in south Korea would influence postponement of the United Nations plebiscite there. Or that the advance work of the expedition to Japan would call international attention to the discovery that Tokyo was out of place on all existing maps. Many other unlooked-for footnotes were to accumulate in the eclipse log. The inception of Operation Eclipse actually dates back to June, 1947. The previous month an expedition under the National Geo graphic Society's auspices had studied the solar eclipse in Brazil, with notable results, casting new light on Einstein's theory of rela tivity.* An Eclipse Made to Order The question logically arose, What about 1948's eclipses? One would begin deep in the Indian Ocean, move in a sweeping global curve across southern Burma, Siam, China, Korea, northern Japan, and then over the top of the Pacific into the Aleutians (map, pages 328-9). Another eclipse would not track that iden tical path for 972 years. For astronomers, this eclipse of May 8 and 9, 1948, had made-to-order features. First, it would afford an opportunity to advance mankind's knowledge of the size and shape of the earth. Many believe that scientists long have known everything about this subject. Not so. They have been gathering data on it since the 6th century B. c. and the days of the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras. Yet, after many centuries of observation and research, the best information existing still might lead to errors of a mile or more in plotting the relative locations of many points on the globe. The prime target of a 1948 eclipse project was to procure data that eventually would enable relative locations on the earth's surface to be determined more accurately. A second, though incidental, opportunity also was apparent. Observations might en able us to link some of the existing geodetic surveys on two great land masses, for the sweep of the eclipse would traverse parts of Asia and North America. Such an accomplishment would be of great value to astronomers and mathematicians in their unceasing efforts to come closer to per fection in computations dealing with the curv ing surfaces of the earth and their relation to the nearer celestial bodies. Ultimately the gain might well be reflected in everyday life, giving man a basis for more accurate interpretation of maps, and advanc ing modern navigational techniques for peace ful commerce between nations. The possibilities of the May eclipse known, there remained the big question mark of the weather prospects for that time of year. Meteorological records indicated less than * See "Eclipse Hunting in Brazil's Ranchland," by F. Barrows Colton, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1947.