eclipsing science

When I was six years old, the path of a total solar eclipse’s shadow ribboned across my home, my hometown, and my elementary school. It’s stored in that dreamlike haze of longterm memory, but I do remember that it was momentous, so much so that the school and the busses changed schedules for the day so that we would all be in school well before the event. I remember waiting at the bus stop when it was still dark. It was immediately enigmatic, but I don’t think I realized the rarity of the occurrence for our given location. I was a first grader, after all.

Quick searches through media archives help me validate the memory. Moreover, I’m older than six and I have a clearer sense of what that event was. I now teach physics and astronomy and I help students and teachers work out the geometry and gravity of it all. I have a better appreciation for the kind of day it was, because I appreciate that rarity of where I was in time and space and how that was all determined by the literal alignment of planetary bodies.

But here’s the rub: I can’t really appreciate the phenomenon. I don’t have a description of the experience of the eclipse itself. I, along with all my primary grade classmates, stayed inside the classroom for the duration of that roughly once-in-a-lifetime event.

I remember that it got dark outside. I remember that the teacher monitored the door and the adjacent window, shade drawn. First graders stayed dutifully at desks. There was no ceremony of beginning or ending, but at some point the apparent danger waned, and we went back to doing school — the same thing that we’d been doing before, but now with no other missed opportunity to pull our attention away.

I remember a certain heartbreak at the time, maybe my first real disappointment with school. Like all strings of relationships, there are highlights and heartbreaks, and these often pair in paradoxical ways. This was one of those.

As years have gone by I’ve flashed back on this on occasion. No one told me I was injusticed and I never waged protest. It was just disappointment in its most vanilla flavor. I knew the sky went dark and I was at my desk, three rows back and a little left of center. We knew there were miracles behind the curtain that we were missing out on.

When I was trying to make sense of what I’d missed, I pulled up old accounts of that specific day. They included Annie Dillard’s description of this same occurrence, just a few hundred miles northeast of me, only a few minutes later than my first major scholastic letdown. I love and hate Dillard for this essay. She accounted for what I missed in a location I couldn’t get to. But in spite of some envy, I appreciate what she captures:

The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember. I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong.

What Dillard describes is not just evocation of the beautiful, but a haunting scene. Maybe, besides not wanting the first graders to burn out their retinas or run into the fields of Western Oregon, our teachers wanted to make sure we weren’t traumatized. This is the question that sticks with me: Why do we lock ourselves away from the beautiful? Maybe things wouldn’t have been different for me in the long run, and maybe I wouldn’t have remembered if I had been outside. But my sense is that this was a monumental opportunity, lost.

In the last 40 years, I’ve since seen a few partial eclipses, transits of Mercury and Venus each in front of the Sun, and an annular eclipse. Each one of them was awe inspiring in its own way, a firsthand experience of something so much bigger than me and yet so tied to my existence. But I am sure that these still don’t compare to a total eclipse of the Sun.

On August 21, 2017, there’s an eclipse path that spans the breadth of our continent. Over five years ago, I recognized that I had to make a plan, make amends for what I missed in 1979. I plan to be in the backcountry on a high mountain pass, in the dark with people I love most in this world. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m not exactly sure how I’ll react. Perhaps I’ll raise a glass to my first grade teacher. Maybe I’ll cower in fear. It’s likely I’ll be covering myself from pelting rain and wind while cursing the dark. But, I suspect that I’ll take it in, a couple of minutes in perfect alignment between the Earth, Moon, and Sun. And that will be enough.

(Link to map.)