This year feels like the end of the world and, on Monday, it will look like it: The moon will come between the Earth and the sun, and the United States will experience its first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in 99 years.
Is there any event more tonally perfect for 2017 than a total solar eclipse? It is a temporary but complete upending of the normal course. It is darkness obliterating daylight, on your lunch hour. It is a fleeting apocalypse.
An eclipse inspires no cheery clichés. It doesn’t assure you that you can only see a rainbow after a storm, that it’s darkest before the dawn. An eclipse says: Look directly at me and go blind.
The people with the best views are those situated along the “path of totality,” an end-of-days turn of phrase if ever there was one. That path is a descending diagonal from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Its arc will be a slash across the United States like a sash over Miss America: a stripe of night through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia. It will slice the contiguous U.S. almost across its center, a sort of Mason-Dixon in the sky.
NASA will livestream this greatest show above Earth for a full four hours. In an ever-fracturing pop culture landscape, only the cosmos can provide a true water-cooler moment.
“It literally feels like the darkness has slammed over you.”
John Dvorak, an astronomer and science writer, has witnessed two total eclipses, in 1979 and 1991. (The latter wasn’t visible from the continental U.S., but Dvorak was in Hawaii studying active volcanoes.) The best way to describe how he recalls seeing an eclipse is to say he sounds like a believer who caught a glimpse of God.
“It’s a sense of awe,” he said. “Now, people use the word ‘awesome’ today to mean ‘good.’ But the way that I use the word awe is just to be speechless.”
First the sun, he says, usually a gleaming circle, narrows to a thin, curved, line, sharpening the edges of all the shadows beneath it. “It’s like you’re having a hallucination,” Dvorak said. “You look at somebody’s face, and their face is all distorted. The eyes are sunk deep in the head. The nose, chin, and mouth are protruding. People, family you’ve known your entire life, they take on this strange, surreal look.”
Shadow bands, creating “a whole pattern of light and dark,” will “start to shimmer around you. They race faster than a person can run.” A cold gust of wind could go by, like the whoosh in the scary movie when a being from the beyond announces its presence in a mortal plane. The temperature can drop by as much as 12 degrees. Animals get skittish.
People want to know how they’ll know when it’s happening, Dvorak said. It slowly gets dimmer and they wonder, is this is? Is this it? Is this it? “And then: BOOM. It happens. You’re standing there, and it’s darkness.”
“The moon’s shadow races at about a mile a second. So it literally feels like the darkness has slammed over you.”
It’s eerie, unsettling. Turn in a circle and you can see bright sunlight miles away. But where you are, it’s night. A little pool of midnight at high noon. You can see the stars. The sun is gone. “A lot of people think the night sky is black, and it’s not,” Dvorak said. “It’s a very faint dark blue. And if you look up at the sky during a total solar eclipse, the sky is a dark blue and the silhouette of the moon is a cold, pitch black. And surrounding that disc is this remarkable curly white halo, [the] corona.”
Blood-red dots around the moon’s silhouette appear. “Those are gigantic balls of gas that have just been blown off of the sun. And part of the humbling experience is you notice that even though these are just pinpoints of blood red, each one is many times the size of Earth.”
The whole thing takes two minutes. “As the moon continues to move across, the sun returns, and everything reverses. The wind blows by, the shadow bands flutter by, and eventually all your friends start to look normal again.”
And then you get this feeling. Maybe you didn’t notice while the eclipse was going on, that sinking sensation—that dread—rising within. On a primal level you felt what your life would be like without the sun; you realize there would be no life at all. And when you emerge from the eclipse unscathed, when everything goes back to the way it’s supposed to be, you are flooded with an intense sense of relief. The feeling is called post-eclipse euphoria. It can last for hours. Think of a total solar eclipse as a premeditated, communal brush with death.
Two court astronomers, Hsi and Ho, had one job: They were to shoot arrows and beat drums during a fearsome celestial event. A monster was devouring the sun. Were they supposed to predict this assault on the sun or rush into action as soon as it began? Reports vary. It was 2137 B.C.
But Hsi and Ho got drunk. Wasted. Utterly smashed. Too much wine. You understand.
The emperor, however, did not understand. And because the emperor held Hsi and Ho responsible for averting this cosmic crisis and chalked up the ensuing eclipse to the astronomers’ failure, he ordered them to be executed.
Before scientists understood what was literally occurring during these brief, intense bouts of darkness, eclipses tended to terrify. The great source of light and life snuffed out without warning with no assurance it would ever return; who wouldn’t get a little anxious?
“The most reliable source of light and heat out there, just with a snap of the fingers, it’s gone. It’s a black hole up there,” Dvorak said. “And if you didn’t know it was coming, it’s upsetting. And if you don’t know how long it’s going to be there, if you don’t know about eclipses and what happens, your first reaction is that, this is it. This is the end.”
As Tyler Nordgren writes in Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets, “For the majority of human history, eclipses have been terrible apparitions.” Norsemen in Scandanavia yelled at eclipses so as “to frighten away the demon dogs that the god Loki had sent to hunt and feed upon the Sun and Moon.” In India, people bashed pots and pans together to scare Rahu, “an immortal head who chased and ate both the Sun and Moon.” The Ojibwe of North America took a fight-fire-with-fire approach, shooting flaming arrows at the Sun to help it “regain his light.”
“If you don’t know about eclipses and it happens, your first reaction is that, this is it. This is the end.”
Dr. Gerardo Vazquez, an astrophysicist and lecturer on eclipse myths and legends, put it this way: The rising and setting of the sun is an extraordinary event made mundane by familiarity. “If that event only happened every two months, or every five years, it would be something spectacular. The fact that it’s every day, that removes the fear.” But the eclipse, for most people, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In ancient cultures, people often thought their actions could incite the rage of the gods, who in turn punished them by plunging humanity into darkness, which is to say, with eclipses. “Most cultures have gods [they] were scared of,” Vazquez said, and whom they would try to appease with all kinds of offerings.
Even the Aztecs, Vazquez said, who “followed the movement of things in the sky [with] high precision, so it’s highly probable that they knew the time of the eclipse,” still “didn’t know what caused it” and felt the need to give the gods something to make sure the sun didn’t disappear forever. Their offering of choice? Human sacrifice.
In literature, an eclipse is often a premonition of impending doom. “They’re almost always associated with bad omens,” Dvorak said. Some Biblical passages suggest that an eclipse occurred during the Crucifixion. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the chapter on Jesus’ death describes how “from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, darkness came over all the land.” Shakespeare, too, was fond of the eclipse-as-foreboding-sign. Take this warning in King Lear:
“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord, in palaces treason, and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father.”
For the enslaved Nat Turner, dreaming of rebellion, an eclipse wasn’t a harbinger of doom but a green light from the divine. He awaited “signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” In February 1831, his sign arrived: An eclipse of the sun.
Eventually, people stopped fearing eclipses and started chasing them. Dvorak dates that switch to the solar eclipse in July 1842. English astronomer Francis Baily (for whom Baily’s beads are named) observed it from Pavia, Italy. “I… was electrified at the sight of one of the most brilliant and splendid phenomena that can well be imagined,” he wrote. “I did not expect, from any of the accounts of preceding eclipses that I had read, to witness so magnificent an exhibition as that which took place.”
How did he know when to take to his telescope? Eighteen years earlier, Friedrich Bessel, a German mathematician, developed the math that made it much easier to compute eclipses, thereby making it possible for the multitudes to predict where and when they would occur. The 1840s also saw the rise of personal photography, giving eclipse chasers the ability to create a permanent document of an otherwise ephemeral sight. (Pics or it didn’t happen: Apparently something people have been thinking for centuries.)
“You’re sharing a moment that humans have been witnessing throughout the entire time we’ve been on Earth.”
By the mid-19th century, world travel had grown in popularity, aided by the construction of railroads; the first steam locomotive in America debuted in 1830 and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Nine years later, it carried heaps of east coasters to Denver, where they could see an eclipse only visible across the western United States. Locals, bless their all-American entrepreneurial minds, minted money off the galactic tourist attraction: Church steeple windows that faced the eclipse were leased for 50 cents a pop, while a Denver newsie reportedly raked in 70 bucks selling “bootleg eclipse glasses.”
In 1925, a total solar eclipse was visible from New York City. A New York Times reporter was astounded at the sight:
“The perfect golden ring of light with a blazing jewel set in it was a sight that will never be forgotten by those who had the good fortune to see the eclipse yesterday morning from a place of vantage… The great lesson of the eclipse to the masses of those who saw it is that one little unusual phenomenon in the skies makes us realize how closely akin we all are in this common planetary boat out on an ethereal sea that has no visible shores.”
The last time anyone in the contiguous United States could see a total solar eclipse was in February 1979. An Associated Press story at the time described how the “thousands of camera and-telescope toting travelers mobbed small towns of the Pacific Northwest over the weekend in hopes of glimpsing the last total eclipse of the sun visible in North America this century.” The AP also reported that vendors in Goldendale, Washington—home to the only public observatory in the path of totality—”saw another total eclipse in 1918, were better prepared this time and hawked hats, buttons and $6 T-shirts reading, ‘Biggest Coverup in 7 Years.’”
Goldendale, pop. 3,200, was expected to host at least 5,000 tourists for the eclipse. The mayor, Cyrus Forry, said he had “a dozen staying at my house.” NBC paid $5,000 for use of Goldendale’s observatory’s 24.5 inch telescope, outbidding CBS. For a swankier viewing experience, an eclipse chaser could snag a seat on Seattle’s Pacific Science Center’s chartered Boeing 727, which would fly “35,000 feet above the Columbia River gorge, complete with a champagne brunch after totality.”
Eclipse mania was just as strong on the other side of the Atlantic. Virginia Woolf, in addition to being a pioneering writer, was “an amateur astronomer,” Dvorak said, who “understood the night sky very well” and owned her own telescope. In 1927, while she was living in London, she learned there would be a total solar eclipse over the northern part of England. She was among the three million people who trekked north to see it. (For context, about 20 million people lived in England at the time, putting the eclipse-watcher-to-population ratio at over one in ten.)
Hers was a six-hour rail journey; she passed the time writing in her diary and smoking cigars. Then an hourlong bus ride up the hillside. And then, this being England, the sky was overcast. “They didn’t see the sun get eclipsed,” said Dvorak. “It was only the darkness, and it only lasted for 24 seconds.” But, as she wrote in her diary, the darkness alone was captivating. “She has this overcoming feeling of: This is the end. This is like the verge of extinction.” And then, the euphoria. “There was this feeling of a rebirth. It’s the beginning of time again.”
For someone alive today, the opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse is the chance to be connected, in some way, with all these disparate people across time and space. That’s what is wondrous about an eclipse in 2017, according to Rebecca Ljungren, an astronomy educator at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “They’ve happened for millennia and will happen for many afterward,” she said. “So you’re sharing a moment that humans have been witnessing throughout the entire time we’ve been on Earth.”
Ljungren hasn’t seen a total solar eclipse yet. She’s preparing for her first by watching YouTube videos of people watching eclipses. “Not to see the actual eclipse,” she clarified. “But to see how people react. And it is such a joy.”
“People whoop and holler,” she said. “People cry. There’s all these amazing emotional moments that occur.”
“I’ve been wondering, what is going to be the big reaction?” Dvorak said. It’s possible, he realized, that Americans today are too spoiled by CGI to appreciate the magnificence of something in nature. “Is the country going to say it wasn’t that great? Or is the country going to say, ‘My goodness, there really is something out there beyond what I ever perceived in my life’? And that is a very interesting question.”
“Is the country going to say, ‘My goodness, there really is something out there beyond what I ever perceived in my life’?”
Monday’s eclipse, Dvorak said, is a “cosmic coincidence that’s been eons in the making. And the question is, will modern American society view it like that? Because it’s completely outside of our control. There’s nobody in Hollywood pulling strings. Nobody has made this on a computer. [There’s no] Photoshop. If for some reason all of us were eliminated tomorrow, it’s still going to happen.”
The eclipse has nothing to do with us, really. It is indifferent to its fans and chasers, to the mania it inspires. But still, it feels like it matters: something so unifying, humbling, and awe-inspiring arriving at a moment when unity, humility, and awe are in such short supply.
The beauty of the eclipse, Ljungren said, is inextricable from its status as a rarity for the masses. It is that unusual thing made more special, not less, by the fact that anyone in its path can just step outside and see it. “Astronomical phenomena have the ability to be for everyone who has access for the sky,” she said. “The sky is for everyone.”