Track­ing the ‘eye of God’— a U.S. solar eclipse

If you can travel to the path of the ‘to­tal­ity’ on Aug. 21, do it. You’ll never for­get it.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Frank Close Frank Close is a Bri­tish par­ti­cle physi­cist . His lat­est book is “Eclipse: Jour­neys to the Dark Side of the Moon.”

What is the most beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non you have ever seen? A bril­liant rain­bow set against a dis­tant storm, the shim­mer­ing aurora in an Arc­tic night, or a blood-red sky just af­ter sun­set, per­haps? Here’s what puts all those in the shade: the di­a­mond-ring ef­fect that her­alds a to­tal solar eclipse, an ex­plo­sion of light on the edge of the moon’s inky cir­cle, as it blots out the sun.

When the moon is in di­rect line of sight of the sun, a “to­tal­ity” com­pletely and pre­cisely blocks our cen­tral star from view, cast­ing a shadow on Earth’s sur­face about 100 miles in di­am­e­ter. As our planet spins in its daily round, that shadow rushes across land and sea at about 2,000 miles an hour. If you are in its di­rect path, you’ll never for­get it.

To­tal solar eclipses oc­cur at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, but each time a mere 0.5% of Earth’s sur­face is to­tally ob­scured by the moon’s shadow. On Aug. 21, for the first time in a cen­tury, that 0.5% will cross the whole of North Amer­ica, more or less kit­ty­corner from north­west Ore­gon through Idaho and across Wyoming, Ne­braska and Mis­souri, then parts of five more states to South Carolina, po­ten­tially cre­at­ing the largest-ever au­di­ence for a to­tal­ity.

There is a slow build-up to the main event. It takes about an hour for the moon to grad­u­ally cover the sun. The bright disc shrinks to a sliver and twi­light falls, giv­ing the il­lu­sion that the sun is dis­ap­pear­ing. This fright­ened the an­cients, who feared that the source of all life was about to be ex­tin­guished.

As the last of the sun van­ishes, the tem­per­a­ture drops, and from the west, a wall of dark­ness, the moon’s shadow, ap­proaches. In an in­stant you are en­veloped by gloom and the moon has ap­peared — in sil­hou­ette — as if from nowhere, like a rab­bit from the con­jurer’s hat. This is a truly weird phe­nom­e­non.

The sounds of an­i­mals cease, and life seems in sus­pended an­i­ma­tion as for a few min­utes night comes to the dome of the sky di­rectly over­head, and cov­ers the land from one hori­zon to the other. Look up, and you will see stars as if it were nor­mal night, but ac­com­pa­nied by a black­ened moon sur­rounded by sun’s shim­mer­ing white corona, like a black sun­flower possessed of del­i­cate sil­ver petals.

One watcher has de­scribed it to me as “look­ing into the val­ley of death with the lights of heaven far away call­ing for me to en­ter.” An­other ex­claimed: “Is that the eye of God?”

Min­utes later, day­light re­turns in an in­stant; more magic.

I saw my first par­tial eclipse as an 8-yearold at school in Great Bri­tain. My teacher told me I would have to wait 40 years to see a to­tal eclipse in Eng­land. So on Aug. 11, 1999, with my wife and el­der daugh­ter, I trav­eled to the south­west tip of the coun­try, to the path of to­tal­ity. We care­fully placed our­selves on the cen­ter line of the eclipse, but thick clouds hid the sun from view.

At 11 a.m., with just min­utes to go be­fore my first to­tal­ity was sup­posed to ar­rive, the gloom wasn’t lift­ing. What I had waited most of my life to see would un­fold on the far side of a cur­tain, out of sight. All I could do was to look to the west, from where the shadow would come, in the hope of some small break in the clouds.

There was none. In­stead, in the dis­tance, black­ness sig­naled what ap­peared to be a storm of gar­gan­tuan in­ten­sity gath­er­ing just be­yond the hori­zon. Then I re­al­ized: This was not more bad weather, but a dra­matic over­ture.

The vi­sion was ter­ri­ble, apoc­a­lyp­tic. Black­ness swelled out side­ways and sat­u­rated the dis­tant sky in less time than it takes to ar­tic­u­late, like a tsunami rush­ing to­wards me, swal­low­ing up the in­ter­ven­ing space.

Within half a minute the moon’s shadow en­veloped the land­scape all around me. Ut­ter si­lence de­scended. It was as if a black cloak had been cast over ev­ery­thing. And then I watched the moon’s shadow rush away east­wards, dis­si­pat­ing, and the birds and an­i­mals rea­woke.

I had chanced upon a unique eclipse ex­pe­ri­ence, a dark­ness upon a dark­ness, that I have never again wit­nessed. Even con­cealed, the to­tal­ity was mag­nif­i­cent.

Af­ter the thrill of an eclipse you can’t wait to do it again (I’ve now seen six to­tal solar eclipses), but wait you must un­til that ex­quis­ite align­ment of sun, moon and Earth comes around once more. When it does, you must go to wher­ever the moon’s shadow will mo­men­tar­ily sweep across a small part of the globe. Any­place else and at best you’ll see a par­tial eclipse, or noth­ing at all.

I say, if you can get to the to­tal­ity, go — what­ever it takes. I am bring­ing my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren with me to the North Amer­i­can show, so they can have a life­time’s mem­ory. Cloudy or clear, it will be worth it.

Jay Pasa­choff

A TO­TAL SOLAR ECLIPSE in 2010 as viewed from Easter Is­land in the south­east­ern Pa­cific Ocean — the black­ened moon sur­rounded by the sun’s corona.

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