Solar eclipses are always with us

Solar eclipses are always with us

Marina Koren writes:

Cosmically speaking, the alignment of Earth, the sun, and the moon is ordinary. But from our corner of the universe, the occurrence produces something wondrous: a total solar eclipse. On April 8, the moon will pass between the sun and Earth, casting a shadow along a narrow strip of the country, from Texas to Maine. Outside this path, the sun will not disappear, and the best and safest way to observe the event is with eclipse glasses. Inside the path, the moon’s shadow will blot out the sun so completely that, for a few minutes, it will be unrecognizable—a luminous ring in the suddenly darkened sky. You can stare right at it. The difference between a partial eclipse and a total one is, well, night and day.

More than 30 million Americans live inside the path of totality, and millions are expected to travel there for the celestial event. Many before them have been caught in the fleeting shadow of the moon. In 1897, The Atlantic published the writer Mabel Loomis Todd’s account of a total solar eclipse that occurred the year before, in Japan. (Todd is best known for transcribing Emily Dickinson’s original works after the poet’s death and, controversially, making changes to the poems before publication.) By that time, heavenly beliefs about eclipses had given way to natural explanations; Todd witnessed the eclipse as part of a scientific expedition. Astronomers had traveled all this way, with all kinds of instruments with which to observe the spectacle, but they initially “could not bear to look at all the fine apparatus and the extensive preparations, with the prospect of cloud,” Todd wrote.

In 2017, 120 years later, I was just as worried as Todd and her companions seemed to be about clouds obscuring the display. As I waited in a state park in Tennessee, the anticipation became uncomfortable; as Todd described it, “The nerve-tension of that Sunday morning was beyond what one would often be able to endure … Something was being waited for, the very air was portentous.”

When the moon slid over the sun, the sky above me turned a surreal deep purple; for Todd, “unearthly night enveloped all things.” The corona, the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, looked to me like a radiant white ring, but no words felt enough. Todd put it better: “a celestial flame beyond description.” [Continue reading…]

Comments are closed.