What’s a scientist to do when an eclipse is best seen at sea? Commandeer an ocean liner

On a dark night last March, the Queen Elizabeth II was sprinting across the Java Sea, tossing aside waves like an impatient leviathan. Nine mighty engines throbbed at full throttle, and the crew navigated through poorly charted waters with all the urgency and care of wartime maneuvers. But the ocean liner wasn’t rushing to deliver troops—as it had during the Falklands conflict--nor even to rescue a vessel in distress. Instead, it was pursuing science: This Queen had a date with an eclipse.

For Ken Brecher, anxiously pacing the liner’s deck, the dash across the sea was the final leg of a year-long odyssey. An astrophysicist at Boston University, Brecher was the man who had “hijacked” the Queen--all because he wanted to watch the sun disappear behind the moon. And when the night was...

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