【Special Column of Masters－Skyward】A truly wonderful eclipse
David H. Levy | Skyward
A total eclipse of the Sun is possibly Nature’s grandest show. And to be somewhere in the path of totality, looking into a darkened sky, and seeing the jeweled crown around what was once the Sun, is truly an experience like no other.
Throughout most of 2017 the world has appeared to be fractured, disingenuous, and unfriendly. But for a few hours on Monday morning, August 21, all that changed as hundreds of thousands of people looked up at the sky and witnessed a solar eclipse.
Almost everyone in the United States and Canada was treated to at least a partial eclipse. But those lucky enough to find their way to a 70-mile-wide swath of utter darkness saw the rare and wonderful phenomenon of a total eclipse of the Sun.
Wendee and I were in that path. Actually we were in Madras, Oregon not far from the base of Mt. Jefferson in the Cascade mountain range. From the front entrance of our hotel in Madras, we enjoyed the entire 2 ½ hour event uninterrupted by any clouds. Smoke from nearby wildfires did not seriously interfere with our enjoying the eclipse.
Because eclipses occur in repeating series called saros (Greek for cycle), this is not the first time I have seen this eclipse. I saw it first on the afternoon of July 20, 1963 with my parents and a friend. But despite the wonder of totality, the thing that impressed my Dad with that eclipse was that it started on time. Punctuality meant a lot to him, and he was impressed that a schedule formed a billion years ago was still accurate to the second.
I saw the eclipse for a second time on August 11, 1999. This time we were aboard a ship just southeast of the coast of Nova Scotia. Because the Moon’s shadow was just beginning its journey across the face of the Earth that morning, the totality was very brief, only about 50 seconds long. It allowed Wendee to take my favorite picture of any eclipse, a simple shot through her “point and shoot” camera that captured the shadow of the Moon as it tore across the face of the Earth.
And so, on August 21, 2017 the Moon’s shadow reappeared in yet another iteration. Since this was the third repetition, it is called an exeligmos. This means that the eclipse was almost identical to what some of us recall seeing in 1963. This eclipse was just a bit south of the original path from 1963. In any case, it was a welcome event.
Even though some astronomers try to conduct science experiments during solar eclipses, I’ve never been much for doing science during these events, mostly because the emotional feel of a total eclipse is so captivating that it leaves little extra room for logic or scientific thinking. True, helium was discovered during the solar eclipse of August 18, 1868, and Eddington gathered evidence supporting Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity during the eclipse of May 29, 1919. My overriding goal for any eclipse is just to enjoy the spectacle.
My 91st eclipse will hopefully be an eclipse of the Moon coming early in 2018. I expect to be amazed by that one too.