Published: 2017-08-24 20:50:00
Updated: 2017-08-24 21:46:38
Posted August 24
By Tony Rice
North Carolinians who traveled into the path of the eclipse had a few hours during the return trip to contemplate what they’d just witnessed. What did we take away?
For many, it was a spiritual experience. Greg Fishel’s commented “I’ve always thought science was the discovery of God’s creation, if this isn’t an example of that, I don't know what is,” as the diamond ring returned at the end of totality. For others, it was pure excitement. Gilbert Baez’s “this is unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable” reaction in Columbia is a perfect example.
I still don't know what the experience was like for Nate Johnson. Days later the best description he can manage is “no words.” I echo Nate's inability to describe experience viewing the Sun's corona and the fleeting impact on the small part of the Earth in the Moon's shadow. Jodi Foster’s character in the 1997 Carl Sagan movie Contact put it better than any of us could hope to: “They should have sent a poet. So beautiful.I had no idea.”
What I hope many, especially those in the path of totality, took away from the experience a sense of place in the solar system. As grandiose as that sounds, the workings of the solar system were on display in right there front of you. During the brief period of totality, the orbital plane of the solar system along was traced out in a line of planets visible in the middle of the afternoon. The "celestial coincidence" of a moon 400 times smaller than a Sun 400 times further makes a total solar eclipse possible and is also unique to Earth.
If you were in the path of totality, you might have noticed that the sky did not get very dark. This is because the path of totality was rather narrow for the eclipse, just 70 miles wide. That 360 degree sunrise around you was light from those viewing a partial eclipse creating a form of light pollution for those inside the path of totality. Keep that in mind the next time you buy outdoor lights for your home and choose those that put light on the ground, not in the sky.
Whether you saw totality or just the partial eclipse, you got a sense for just how bright the sun is. Even at 93% obscured in Raleigh, the landscape was very well lit. Keep that in mind as you apply sunscreen.
Meteorologists everywhere hope you got a little better appreciation of how difficult it is to forecast the weather, especially in the summer afternoons in the Carolinas. While Nate Johnson and Greg Fishel hoped for breaks in the clouds above Clingman’s Dome as the partial eclipse progressed, Gilbert Baez dodged storm clouds in Columbia, S.C, I watched the clouds forecast to cover more than 60% of the sky stay to the east of Santee, S.C. From first to last contact, we never had a cloud anywhere near the sun.
Scientists hope that the experience opens up science for a few more Americans. We observed the eclipse progress exactly as scientists described, exactly when it was calculated to occur (within less than a tenth of a second) all while safety warnings prevented us from burning out our retina. Remember these things as the national conversation continues on weightier issues that will impact us for a lot longer the 2 minutes and 30 seconds, such as climate change.
For me, the only thing better than finally experiencing this long anticipated event, my first trip to totality, was sharing it with my family. This was also true of 50 members of the extended Miller family converged on the point where the path of totality intersected I-95 from Florida, New York, New Jersey and Raleigh.
I’d last seen the Millers at a talk I gave during Astronomy Days at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in January. The next day, they booked the community room across from the cabin I’d booked for my family at Santee State Park, SC. The Rices were honorary Millers for the day. Views of the eclipse via solar telescope and an incredible lunch spread were shared.
Celestial events are even better with a plate of fried chicken and deviled eggs.