By Richard A. Lovett
At a scientific meeting in late 2016, I went to a press conference about the Great American Eclipse of 2017. At the time, I didn’t even know there was going to be an eclipse, so imagine my surprise when I learned that on August 21, my home was going to experience 99% partiality. Totality was going to be so close I could, in theory, bicycle to it.
There was just one problem. I had an arthritic hip bad enough that I was having trouble walking around the science meeting, let alone pedaling a bicycle. And I was a Johnny-come-lately on the eclipse-awareness scene. Hotels and motels were long gone, and there was talk of “Carmageddon,” in which day-trippers could find themselves inching along in hundred-mile queues, with filling stations sucked dry and grocery shelves stripped bare.
My state of Oregon was expecting to be particularly hard hit because our August climate promised the nation’s best chance of clear skies.1 Officials were seeing the eclipse as a test of emergency plans for coping with the possible evacuation a million people in the event of a big earthquake.
Then, two things happened. First, I got a hip replacement. Then Arizona’s Lowell Observatory offered me a press pass to an eclipse-viewing event it was holding in Madras, Oregon, sweetening the offer by allowing me to camp on the grounds of the high school hosting the event.
If you were looking for the single best place from which to watch the eclipse, Madras was it. Dead center in the path of totality, it lies in the high desert east of the Cascade Mountains and only gets a third of an inch of rain in the average August. Clouds on eclipse day? Highly unlikely.2
I told my surgeon and physical therapist I had one overarching goal. I wanted to be able to camp by eclipse day, nine weeks after my surgery. Forget other rehab targets; I just wanted to be able to get in and out of my tent.
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But eclipses aren’t just for tourists. They also have a prominent place in the history of science.
The most famous story involves the Eddington experiment of 1919, in which astronomers took advantage of the fact that during a total eclipse it becomes dark enough to see stars. Wanting to test the degree to which the Sun’s gravity deflects starlight, a team led by British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington traveled to the remote island of Príncipe (off the coast of West Africa) to measure the angles of light coming from a cluster of bright stars close to the Sun.3 The result matched the theory . . . and instantly propelled a young German physicist to international fame.
“That’s why all of us know Albert Einstein,” says Kevin Schindler, a science historian at Lowell Observatory. “The eclipse made Einstein an international name.”4
And that’s just one story. On August 18, 1868, French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen chased an eclipse to Guntoor, India, carrying a newly developed instrument called a spectroscope. He turned it on the Sun’s corona and observed spectral lines from an unknown element. It wasn’t until 1895 that helium (named for Helios, the Sun) was found on Earth.
A year later, another spectroscopy experiment, conducted in an eclipse on August 7, 1869 also found a bizarre spectral line never seen on Earth. The scientists dubbed it coronium (for the Sun’s corona), but it didn’t turn out to be another new element. Instead, it was iron, stripped of half of its twenty-six electrons—something that could only occur under temperatures in excess of 2 million degrees. “This was the beginning of the realization that the corona was a very hot place,” says Shadia Habbal, a solar physicist at the University of Hawaii.
But the granddaddy of all eclipse stories goes back to 190 B.C.E., when ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus realized he could use an eclipse (which astronomers of his era were already adept at predicting) to measure the distance to the Moon.5 The trick was to compare how much of the Sun’s disk was occluded at different latitudes—in this case the Hellespont, Turkey (where the eclipse was total) and 8.8° south, in Alexandria, Egypt, where it turned out to max out at 80%.
Using this information and some hand-calculated trigonometry he may have invented for the purpose, Hipparchus concluded that the distance to the Moon was 71 Earth radii, or 281,000 miles, based on today’s knowledge of the Earth’s size. That’s impressively close to the modern figure of 239,000 miles.6
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One might think that with the advent of the Space Age, when we can view the Sun from space any time we want, there would be no reason to study an eclipse. But scientists are a creative lot who can always come up with something new.
One of the most exciting experiments was a NASA-funded effort to study the eclipse from balloons launched to altitudes of one hundrd thousand feet or more from 55 points along the path of totality. (In Madras, I spotted one of these balloons lifting off.) “We’re capturing images from the edge of space, which has not been done before,” Catherine Lanier, associate director for NASA’s Space Grant program at Oregon State University (OSU), told me a few weeks before the eclipse.
In addition to watching the eclipse from a unique angle, these balloons would also record atmospheric data as the Moon blotted out the Sun. Such information is useful because the rapid diminution of sunlight at midday pushes the upper atmosphere into unusual conditions, allowing weather forecasters to refine their models. “[We’re] trying to learn how the atmosphere responds,” Lanier said.
Some of the NASA balloons also carried bacteria strains comparable to ones that might survive on Mars. “The temperature and pressure conditions at 85,000 feet are similar to those on the surface of Mars,” said Alex Young, Associate Director for Science, Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Flying the bacteria to the edge of space provides a unique opportunity to examine how bacteria are able to survive in harsh Martian conditions.”
Still other astronomers used the eclipse as an opportunity to turn their instruments on Mercury, which is normally close enough to the Sun to be hard to observe, especially with infrared instruments, which can be used to make thermal maps of Mercury’s surface temperature, particularly on its night side. “How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury’s soil, something that has never been measured before,” said Constantine Tsang, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.
But the most important part of any total eclipse is the chance to view the Sun’s corona—the ghostly glow around it that is otherwise too dim to be seen against the daytime sky.
Even though astronomers have a lot of space-based instruments for viewing the corona, studying it from the Earth—especially from high-flying airplanes—gives information that can’t be obtained from space. That’s because airborne cameras provide higher-resolution images than space-based instruments, said Amir Caspi, a plasma physicist from SwRI.
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But for most of us, scientific research isn’t what viewing an eclipse is truly about. In 1979, Connie Willis wrote a short story called “And Come from Miles Around” based on the eclipse of February 26, 1978, which arced from southwest Washington through Montana and on into Canada. The story involved alien tourists, brought to the event to see a cosmic spectacle created by the rare astronomical coincidence that our Moon is just big enough to block the Sun, while still letting us see solar prominences and the corona.
A total eclipse is “the most beautiful natural phenomena most people can witness,” says Randall Millstein, an OSU astronomer. “It’s an experience that’s been shared by human beings for as long as we’ve looked up at the sky.”
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It was with this in mind that I went to Madras.
Politically, I come from the bluest of blue-state Oregon. Multnomah County, which includes Portland, voted 73-17 for Hillary Clinton (with Green Party candidate Jill Stein coming in third). Jefferson County (for which Madras is the county seat) went 58-32 for Donald Trump, with Libertarian Gary Johnson getting the lion’s share of the leftovers.
But for one glorious weekend, none of this mattered. Madras, population 6,700, not only braced for an influx of fifty thousand to one hundred thousand outsiders, but rolled out the red carpet. A single campground, called Solartown, provided five thousand immaculately organized sites for an estimated thirty thousand people. Other places provided overnight parking at reasonable fees. The city park’s grass was manicured to country-club levels. I have never been anywhere where I felt more thoroughly welcomed.
And while there was a bit of congestion as I passed Solartown, it was minimal. Traffic flowed, supply trucks got in, gas stations were resupplied, restaurants and supermarkets didn’t run out of food.
One can argue that Carmageddon had been overhyped. But farther east, at a place called Big Summit Prairie, there had been 14-hour traffic delays as thirty thousand people funneled into the parking lot for a weeklong eclipse celebration called the Oregon Eclipse Festival. Personally, I think the reason such traffic catastrophes weren’t ubiquitous was because people took the warnings seriously. I certainly did. In the days prior to the eclipse, I frequently logged onto traffic websites. I was prepared to travel by any of three routes and leave as much as 72 hours in advance. If there’s a lesson for emergency planners, it’s this: the internet is vital to moving large numbers of people smoothly and efficiently. If internet traffic-reporting websites go down, the result could be entirely different.
What I also discovered in the three days I spent camping on the high school’s lawn was that red, blue, or purple, we are really not that different the moment politics is taken out of the equation. And the eclipse offered us all not only a shared spectacle but a rare opportunity to focus on science. The folks from Lowell had set up a sequence of lectures in the high school’s posh new six hundred-seat auditorium. At the end of each lecture, listeners had to exit and rejoin the queue to (maybe) get into the next lecture, or the one after. In the process, some five thousand listeners cycled through packed-hall discussions of everything from the history of solar eclipses to exoplanets, stellar evolution, and dwarf galaxies. There was even a lecture on whether your cat can see the stars. (Answer, probably not.)
Meanwhile, nearly everyone in America lived within nine hundred miles of the path of totality—close enough to get at least a 60% eclipse, even if they never left home. “That makes it the single most-viewed natural phenomenon in the history of the United States,” Millstein says. “To be part of that becomes a societal phenomenon.”
So it was in Madras. It took about an hour from the time the Moon first nicked the edge of the solar disk to when the light began to become, as one scientist put it, “seriously weird.” All throughout, the clock on the high school football field was counting down the time.
With twenty minutes to go, I walked a slow lap of the track, thinking of Millstein and looking at the thousands of excited people waiting for the Sun to disappear. I wound up with two brothers, Howard and Norman Mintz from California and New Jersey, who had twice before gotten together for eclipse vacations.
Then suddenly everyone was counting down the seconds. At zero, I pulled off my eclipse glasses, and there, stunningly, was the Moon-eclipsed disk of the Sun, with the corona blazing around it. There were a few stars, a planet, and the oddity of twilight in a 360-degree circle around us. I’d seen photos and thought I knew what to expect, but now I was there, trying to soak it in, wondering what this had looked like to people at the dawn of history, who had no idea what was happening. To us, it’s beautiful. To them, it really must have been truly terrifying.
And then, too soon, it was over. “That was the fastest two minutes of my life,” Norman said. He added: “But we saw the hole in the sky. That’s what I came back to see.”
That single line may have been the biggest epiphany of my trip. My goal had been to see the corona. But that only comes with the Sun blocked out, and Norman and Howard were absolutely correct: The black circle that blots out the Sun to allow that to happen looks very much like a hole drilled through the roof of the cosmos into whatever lies beyond. They were two ways of viewing the same event, both right, both complimentary. It was the juxtaposition of them that made the brief view of totality worth the risk of Carmageddon.
Within days of the eclipse, American politics were becoming as divisive as ever—quickly enough to make me wonder if our brief gathering together had really done anything to give us a shared cultural experience. Then, a friend, who lived within a few miles of the path of totality, told me of bicycling to a nearby town, where she and her husband got a one-minute glimpse of the life-changing eternity that comes with that brief glimpse of totality. Already, they were making plans for going to Texas for the next eclipse in April 2024. Maybe I’ll do the same. “See you next time,” one of the Mintz brothers said as we parted company.
The odds are slim that we’ll cross paths, wherever we decide to go for that eclipse. But he is also correct that two minutes in Madras united us in a fraternity that proves that whatever barriers may divide people, there remain forces that even more strongly unite them. It was, after all, the Great American Eclipse.
1 Other parts of the country have good weather in August, but there, the eclipse was occurring later in the day, increasing the chance of scattered clouds.
2 Wildfire smoke was a more substantial risk, but even smoke bad enough to make your eyes burn is generally a thin haze through which it is still possible to see the Sun.
3 A backup team went to Brazil, where as luck would have it, they also had clear skies.
4 For more details, see Lizzie Buchen, “May 29, 1919: A major eclipse, relatively speaking,” Wired, May 29, 2009, https://www.wired.com/2009/05/dayintech-0529/
5 There appears to be some confusion over the date (some sources list 190 B.C.E. as the date of Hipparchus’s birth), but the eclipse in question appears to have been one that occurred on March 14, 190 B.C.E.
6 More eclipse science, dating back more than 4,000 years to ancient China, are listed on MrEclipse.com, http://www.mreclipse.com/Totality2/TotalityApH.html.
Copyright © 2018 Richard A. Lovett