The 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

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Sometime in the mid 90s, I downloaded an astronomy program for my computer. I don’t even remember what it was called. In poking around on it, I discovered that it could plot future total solar eclipses and that one would pass, from the resolution of the map, very close to where I then lived in eastern Tennessee. The date was August 21st, 2017.

It seemed so impossibly far away in 1997, but I filed the date away in my mind.

I got my first job. I graduated from high school. I graduated from Auburn. I started my career and went through three jobs. I moved many, many times. I got married and had a kid. Bought and sold a house.

But I always kept August 21st, 2017 in my head. I kept looking forward to standing under the darkened sun - something most people never get to experience.

As the date grew nearer, I started to get really excited. As the years turned into months I started planning. And as the months became days I started obsessively watching the weather, looking at map plots, and trying to figure out where would be the best place to go. And as the days became hours and it became clear that the weather was going to cooperate for a fantastic display, I could barely contain my excitement. Twenty years of waiting was about to pay off.

So, on August 21st, 2017, I stood in a rural farm field outside Lenoir City, Tennessee with my family and waited. There was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining brightly above us. But as we looked through our glasses (and my camera, with a solar filter on), we could slowly watch as the moon began to march across the sun.

If you’ve never experienced an eclipse, it’s difficult to explain what the experience is like. It certainly isn’t what I was expecting.

The first thing is, you don’t notice a change at the beginning. In fact, you don’t really start to notice changes until the sun is about 60% obscured. It’s a testament to just how bright our star is that it could be half obscured and it is difficult to notice. Although my father in law had a light meter on his camera and was able to notice almost immediately, the eyes are not nearly sensitive enough to notice. It makes me wonder how ancient peoples were able to observe anything other than totality without missing it.

The second thing is that it didn’t get dark like I was expecting during the lead up to totality. I was expecting it to be a bit like sunset, but it was actually like wearing sunglasses on a bright day. When it got to like 80% or 90% the tint was eerie and difficult to explain. Like it’s the middle of the day but the light is all wrong. One person said it was like watching one of those old, low-budget movies where they shot a “night” sequence during the day through a filter.

The third thing is the temperature dropped. Something that seems logical when you think about it, but it caught me by surprise. It was probably in the lower 90s when the eclipse started - a good hot Tennessee summer day. But I would estimate that we probably lost a good 10 degrees of temperature by the time totality came. And again, this happens gradually but seemed sudden when I noticed it.

The fourth thing is that totality happens fast. Again, it’s a testament to just how much light our star puts out that you can only observe darkness during full totality. Even 99% there was still a lot of light out there.

Seconds before totality, I saw these wavy shadows on a white lawn chair. These are shadow bands caused by the last intense rays of light collimating. I looked just in time to see the Baily’s beads, caused by the last traces of light shooting through the valleys on the moon!

The second 100% totality happens, everything goes twilight dark. And you look up. And see one of the most amazing, magical sights a person can ever experience. Even now I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it.

It’s twilight dark in the middle of the day. You can see stars. And up in the sky is a giant stark black hole where the sun should be. And around the edges of it you can see the arcing corona of the sun revealed from behind the moon.

It was so beautiful I couldn’t help but cheer. No description I can give can do it justice. You truly have to experience totality to understand. Twenty years of waiting for this moment, and it was finally here.

About two minutes of totality, taking pictures and looking up at the eclipsed sun. It seemed like it passed in an instant. And almost as quickly as it began, it ended. The light suddenly returned and the totality was over.

And maybe it should feel like a letdown because it was over, but it didn’t. It was happiness because I was there to see it. It was 100% worth waiting twenty years for. The rush of seeing it is nearly indescribable, and I can totally understand why people chase totality around the world. The only sadness is that, now that I’ve seen something so amazing, I can’t wait to see it again.

When you think about what a cosmically awesome set of circumstances we have that makes this sight possible, it becomes even more impressive. The sun’s diameter is about 400 times greater, but the sun is also about 400 times farther away. So when the two line up, one exactly occults the other, allowing us to view the tenuous solar corona.

But because the moon’s orbit is inclined 5 degrees and not perfectly circular, total eclipses are rare, occurring on average about once every 18 months. The next one is July 2nd, 2019 and will occur almost entirely over empty Pacific ocean, barring tiny Oneo island in the south Pacific. Only towards the very end of it will it be visible in Chile and Argentina.

I’d like to see the Atacama. :)

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