Eclipsing all expectations

(Photo by Elias Chasiotis)

The most spectacular event unfolds this week. On November 13, the Moon will totally cover the Sun. No other eclipse could honestly be called spectacular. A lunar eclipse is merely cool. A partial solar eclipse is just all right. But a solar totality makes people weep and animals go nuts. It is life-altering.

It is not a mere experience of midday darkness. Rather, bizarre things visually happen on the Sun, with equally strange things unfolding all around you on Earth.

Alas, they are rare. We have not had one in New York State since 1925, and will not see another until 2079. Even in all of mainland America, there have been none for the past 34 years. When people say, “I think I once saw one,” they are remembering a partial eclipse: the kind that requires eye protection, which we get every decade or so.

On most but not all years, the Moon’s shadow touches a tiny fraction of some distant land. This week it’ll be Cairns, Australia and nowhere else. I am there now, leading a tour group of 42 people. Please wish us clear skies for this sunrise event.

When I was a kid, nothing seemed more mythically wondrous. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain’s captured hero escapes death by bamboozling the natives with a wave of his hand, seemingly making the Sun go dark. To me, the most riveting possibility on that page wasn’t being burned at the stake, but the Sun turning black. Can that really happen?

Its rarity adds to its allure. For any given place on Earth, a totality appears just once each 375 years. In the US, no major metropolis has seen a total solar eclipse since New York City did in 1925 – unless you count a clouded-over sunrise event that disappointed Beantown in 1959.

During that Roaring Twenties Big Apple eclipse, the expected path of darkness ran from Albany down through the Bronx, and ended unceremoniously at 86th Street near an eatery that would someday be famous for papaya drinks. People south of that subway stop would stand in daylight: no stars out, no mind-numbing glimpse of the solar corona, no hot-pink flares visibly shooting from the Sun’s limb. Volunteers were dispatched to each street so that scientists could later know the precise location of the Moon’s shadow.

I grabbed the first chance that I could. On March 7, 1970, the Moon’s 100-mile-wide shadow was forecast to cross over Virginia Beach before heading out to sea and then ultimately passing over the enchanted island of Nantucket, off Cape Cod. Newly licensed to drive, a couple of friends and I chose the 15-hour road trip south. Good thing: All the Nantucket ferries were sold out. We would have been reduced to standing at the dock with the disappointed crowds, watching a 99.9 percent eclipse from the mainland.

Missing totality by less than one percent may sound like a reasonable experience, nothing to complain about, but it’s actually no better than almost falling in love, or almost seeing the Pyramids. Only full totality produces the astonishing phenomena that nature provides on no other occasion on this planet (or on any other in the known universe).

And if totality is a knockout, the strange science behind it is no less so. Indeed, here is a case where the science spills over into something approaching witchcraft.

There’s no rational reason why the Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun, but also 400 times nearer to us. This makes the only two disks in our sky appear the same size! Such a coincidence lets the Sun’s inner corona and prominences stand visible all around the Moon’s inky limb.

Making it even eerier, the Moon wasn’t always where it is now. It really just arrived at the “sweet spot.” It has been departing from us ever since its creation four billion years ago. Spiraling away at the rate of one-and-a-half inches a year, the Moon will eventually appear too small to cover the Sun. In another 70 million years – an “Achoo!” on the cosmic scale – eclipses will be over for keeps. The era of these spectacles corresponds with the brief time in which we mammals occupy this planet.

Is your appetite whetted? Then consider the next eclipses over our own neck of the cosmic woods. The long US eclipse drought will finally end on August 21, 2017, when the Moon’s shadow track travels southeastward from Oregon to Jackson, Wyoming, then over southern Illinois and Nashville on its way to South Carolina. It will offer two minutes and 40 seconds of totality.

After that, the next US eclipse takes place just seven years later. The Moon’s shadow will move northeastward, crossing directly over Cleveland, Buffalo and Rochester, then over Plattsburgh and Burlington, Vermont. You can drive to it!

“The home of my soul” is how one eclipsegoer described the 1980 totality that we witnessed in northeastern India. So make every effort to get to one of those nearby events coming up in 2017 and 2024.

Travel is a bit of bother, sure. But the reward is nothing less than the most amazing thing that you have ever seen. No amount of hype can oversell it. It exceeds all expectations.

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