Why Are So Many People Being Drawn to Witness the Total Solar Eclipse this August?
By Bryan Brewer, author of ECLIPSE, Third Edition 2017
At least 10 million Americans will have the opportunity of a lifetime this coming summer when the Moon’s shadow sweeps across a 70-mile wide swath from Oregon to South Carolina. Viewers living in this path — provided they have clear skies — will have about two minutes to take in the stunning beauty of the solar corona.
This delicate halo around the sun — visible only during a total solar eclipse — is a truly awesome sight. It’s all set to happen Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, and it’s attracting the attention of millions of other Americans, many of whom are planning to travel to be in the path on eclipse day.
Why are people so drawn to witness this most fleeting and beautiful spectacle of all of Nature? I believe it’s an instinctive desire to experience the emotion we call awe. It’s that “Oh, wow!” feeling that overcomes us when we see extraordinary beauty in nature, or hold a newborn’s hand, or hear a stirring musical performance.
Awe — an emotion that was largely neglected by researchers until about fifteen years ago — has some distinct benefits. Studies show that awe relaxes our nervous systems, opens ours hearts and minds, and fosters a sense of connectedness, both with each other and with the universe.
It’s only natural for people to seek this type of experience (I’ve traveled the world chasing five eclipses), and viewing a total solar eclipse delivers a large dose of what I call “total awe” in several ways.
At the center of the experience is the magnificent view of the wispy solar corona, the Sun’s faint upper atmosphere. Observers over the past several centuries — both scientists and the populace at large — have described the sublime beauty of this sight using phrases such as euphoric, otherworldly, transcendent, and similar superlatives. Many say that it is difficult to find the words to adequately describe the feelings. Photographs, as striking as they may be, do not do justice to actually seeing the corona in person.
The sudden onset of almost total darkness during the middle of the day is another awe-inducing part of a total solar eclipse. This unnatural “midnight at midday” has a disquieting effect on humans and nature alike. The dramatic darkening accelerates in the few minutes before totality until at last the Moon’s shadow, or umbra, moving at more than a thousand miles per hour, sweeps across your location on the Earth.
Seeing this motion of the umbra, along with knowing that you are positioned in perfect alignment with the Moon and the Sun, often gives way to a visceral understanding of the vast physical scale of the event. The Sun (about 93 million miles away) is casting a shadow of the Moon (about 240,000 miles away) across a path on the Earth (no more than a few hundred miles wide) where you, a single individual, are standing.
Finally, the rarity of the experience can impart an expanded sense of time as you recognize the fleeting nature of the moment. A total solar eclipse can serve as a reminder of the arc of one’s lifetime in the context of these regular cycles that have been repeating for millions of years.
As a result, a total solar eclipse can provoke very intense feelings of awe. Many exhibit a renewed child-like sense of wonder, not only about the eclipse but about the world in general. Indeed, witnessing an event on this scale can make you feel very small, and at the same time very connected.
That’s what I have felt after each of the total solar eclipses I have witnessed. I was drawn to my first eclipse in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest. What started out as an idea for a reunion of college classmates blossomed into my book, ECLIPSE.
As a first-time author and self-publisher, I felt very fortunate to have the foreword written by Frank Herbert, author of Dune. He understood both the emotional and the scientific appeal of eclipses: “When we look at the heavens, we look at a cosmic clock that has marked every evolutionary development upon this mundane surface. That clock is still ticking, as the eclipse reminds us.”
The recently released third edition of ECLISPE covers the history and science of eclipses, and has been updated with full-color illustrations and photos throughout, and includes maps and details about the August 21st total solar eclipse.
Are you feeling drawn to witness the spectacle of totality this summer? Here are three quick tips to help you maximize your experience of #totalawe on August 21st:
1. Make sure you are in the path of totality. Otherwise you won’t get to see the dramatic view of solar corona or experience the eerie effects of the midday darkness. Check this interactive NASA map to pinpoint your location within the path.
2. Get some eclipse glasses for use during the partial phases. These are essential to protect your eyesight when you look at the partially eclipsed Sun either before or after totality. During the minute or two of totality, take the glasses off and look safely directly at the solar corona. (There are numerous online sources of eclipse glasses, which cost only about a dollar or two.)
3. Learn about the history and science of these rare events. Eclipses have stories to tell: from Stonehenge to ancient Egypt; from Shakespeare and Mark Twain; from Christopher Columbus to Albert Einstein; from Mayan temples to wars and earthquakes. Read the sagas of scientists who centuries ago circled the globe to glimpse precious minutes of totality to study our solar system. This background will help you more fully appreciate why eclipses continue to rivet the human imagination.
Few ever get the chance to experience totality, and those who do never forget it.
Best wishes for clear skies!