A Huge Surprise!

Jul 30

I thought I knew all about solar eclipses. After all, I was the expert astronomer people were asking about what to expect at the first total solar eclipse in the US in 61 years. It was 1979 and I was working at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, a very popular public observatory and planetarium, operating the Zeiss 12-inch refractor for the public. The eclipse was in the news and there was a lot of interest.

 So I told them all about what to expect -- how the Sun's corona, usually hidden from view by the glare of the solar disk -- would be visible, and some of the other phenomena to expect.

Then I traveled to the eclipse path in eastern Washington and discovered what a total solar eclipse REALLY is. I was completely unprepared for what I experienced. I realized that a total eclipse isn't something you look at. It's something that happens to you. It's an experience that can't really be described because there is on analogy. Nothing in our lives prepares us for it. Others we try to explain it to just won't understand. My explanations to the observatory's visitors were totally inadequate.

The appearance of the Moon's shadow varies as it sweeps over the landscape towards you. It may be a defined circle or just a general sense of darkness. In 1979 it swept towards us like an ominous specter, appearing to leap into the sky over us when it arrived. The horizon was light in every direction, the 360-degree sunset, as we stood in the tip of the shadow's cone. Planets and stars appeared overhead despite the sunlight in the distance. Earth and sky seemed to be turned upside down. Inside, the sense of unease with how the world had changed was palpable, approaching fear, as my brain tried, unsuccessfully, to make sense of the suddenly altered and unfamiliar scene.

Above us stood the Sun, but appearing nothing like in the photographs I had seen. In place of the Sun's brilliant disk was a blackness that seemed to be a hole into another realm of the Universe. The corona surrounding it seemed to shimmer with an unearthly light I couldn't have imagined. I knew what I was seeing but still murmured to myself, "Is that it?" The "expert" was actually a naif, unaware of what awaited him.

There is more to what happens within that narrow path where the Moon's shadow briefly touches the Earth's surface, but what has remained with me to this day, after chasing a total of seven solar eclipses so far, is the amazement, awe, eeriness, primal fear, and shock of that first experience. Nothing can prepare you for it.

Family small

The author's family observing the partially eclipsed Sun minutes before totality swept in. One child has seen a second total eclipse since then, and another will see her second this August. The author's wife will see her seventh total solar eclipse this year.

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