During an Eclipse, Darkness Falls and Wonder Rises

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About 100 million people live within a day’s drive of the path of totality, a band about 70 miles wide. The State of Oregon is treating the eclipse as a rehearsal for a future civil defense disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami. If the forecasts are correct, many of us are likely to be viewing the eclipse from a traffic jam.

Photo

The reporter Dennis Overbye with his daughter, Mira, observing a solar eclipse in 2006.

Credit
Nancy Wartik

And that’s O.K. Just pull over, get out of the car and look around. An eclipse is the ultimate democratic experience. Permission is not required. As Bob Dylan once sang, “But for the sky there are no fences facing.”

You don’t need an astronomer to know whether the sun glows (or does not). Nor do you need any special equipment. If you don’t have those special eclipse sunglasses, make a pinhole camera with your fist and see an image of the sun on the ground as it is eaten away by the moon.

The whole show, for those privileged to make it to the hallowed ground, will last about two hours, from the time the moon first bites into the sun (“first contact,” in astronomical jargon) until the sun is finally whole again (“fourth contact”).

At first, nothing dramatic will happen. Half a sun, or even a quarter, is still daylight, after all. You won’t notice the sun shrinking unless you have special glasses or you’re carrying a pinhole camera.

If you are under a tree, the gaps between the leaves may serve as pinholes. When you look down, you may see the ground carpeted with crescent suns.

How to Watch a Solar Eclipse

Here we’ll review what you need to know about eclipses, how to be safe during an eclipse and some fun experiments you can try during this rare event.


It’s when the crescent gets small that things start getting weird. Shadows sharpen drastically. The landscape is bathed in a melancholy banana light.

Then it all happens too fast. If you are in a high place looking west, you might see the moon’s shadow approaching. Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, will step out of a robe of sudden twilight over the sun’s shoulder. Mercury, Mars and Venus will pop out of the deepening gloom.

The last glimpse of sunlight as it disappears behind the moon looks like a diamond ring. And then, suddenly, the corona is there.

You always knew it was there, a hidden vibration in your soul, the intuition of something unseen, a mandala meaning whatever you want it to mean. But you couldn’t perceive it.

This moment — “second contact,” by the way — is a good time to scream.

I first experienced this weirdness between goal posts on a soccer field in Siberia in 1968, where a colleague and I had ventured to record an eclipse that lasted only 35 seconds.

More on Reporting on Eclipses

We brought with us a camera from the esteemed Harvard astronomer Donald Menzel, who couldn’t make the trip. We recruited a Russian astronomer to run it.

Afterward, it was my job to deliver the film to Dr. Menzel’s graduate student, a young astronomer named Jay Pasachoff.

It began a long acquaintance with Dr. Pasachoff, now one of the leading eclipse astronomers in the world. The man is driven by the mystery of the corona, which is only a millionth as bright as the sun’s surface yet more than a million degrees hotter.

In 1983, a photographer and I crashed a National Science Foundation expedition to a place called Frog Point, on the island of Java, where Dr. Pasachoff’s team was set up to record an eclipse.

We had an excuse because a friend of mine, Dennis di Cicco, then an editor at Sky & Telescope and a renowned astrophotographer, had been summoned all the way from Cambridge, Mass., to bring Dr. Pasachoff an important filter.

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