It is difficult to describe the experience of totality to someone who's never seen it.
But that doesn't mean we won't try!
Well, I've seen some people simply sit down and cry after seeing a total eclipse, they're so overwhelmed. Some people find it to be a religious experience. For me personally, it gives me a connection to the universe, an insight into the clockwork of the solar system. You actually get to experience firsthand the motion of the Moon with respect to the Sun. And that's something you rarely get to feel and to experience, and it's just a very visceral connection that, yes, we're on this planet hurtling around the Sun - and you've got this Moon that's - that's orbiting the Earth, and we just happen to be at the right coincidince where all of these things line up. And it's just a remarkable experience that connects you to the rest of the solar system.
After having seen a total solar eclipse, obviously it made a big impression on me - as it does on almost anybody who sees one. And over the years, when I'm talking about those things, I would hear - commonly, people would say, "Oh, you know, I think I saw a total solar eclipse, when I was a kid one time". And, my reaction to that: If you just think you've seen a total solar eclipse, I promise you - you haven’t.
Time kind of stands still, during a total solar eclipse - or another way of putting it is, all eclipses are 8 seconds long. Time is kind of meaningless when it happens, and it's always too short when it's over, and it's kind of hard to think about time when it's happening. It's just kind of one of those amazing psychic things.
One of the eclipse chasers wrote a book on the psychology of eclipse chasers. And she goes through the reason why we want to see this thing over and over and over again, whereas if you go to a natural phenomenon like the Grand Canyon, you really enjoy it but you don't want to see it over and over and over again. I think it has something to do with something in our genetics, and our psyche, in terms of a natural phenomenon that goes against what we're programmed genetically to see in our daily lives. You know, we're not programmed to see the Sun disappear from the sky in the middle of the day, we're not programmed to see the phenomena that occur, both visually and auditory. And the entire experience is just, just - it's just, it's - it's addictive.
In 13 eclipse trips, I've talked to thousands of people - I love to do a "day before [the] eclipse" talk. And I tell them about the drama, and about all the sights - and of course I explain the timings and everything like that. And people look at me, and they must think "wow, this guy must have worked for P.T. Barnum!" And you know how many of those people, after the eclipse, have been disappointed? NONE! How many have thought that I oversold the event? ZERO! It's that spectacular - you cannot overhype this event! No matter what we do, there's nothing we can do or say that will build this event up too highly.
Only during totality do you see the beautiful corona, around the black disk of the Moon!
"Corona" is a Latin word - it means "beer"!
It means "crown"!
As totality approaches, as you hit about 85% coverage, and look around in the sky, most people will be able to see Venus. But you'll actually be able to see a few stars during totality, which you can’t see during any of the partial phases. Also during totality, take a few seonds, and just scan the horizon; because, as you can imagine, you're within this huge shadow. And at the edges of the shadow, what's happening? Sunrise on one end, and sunset on the other. So people call this the 360-degree ring of sunset - and it's just a spectacular thing to observe.
Dr. Shadia Habbal
It's actually awe-inspiring. Because, you're going from daytime to nighttime in a very short period of time, and then all of a sudden, what appears in the sky is very difficult to describe. It's a gorgeous corona, and you never know what's going to appear in the sky because every eclipse is different. So, even if you have images from satellites and so on, to give you some idea of what to expect, then what you see is... you couldn't have guessed.
Thanks, Shadia! Michael Zeiler - let's go over to you now.
I think that's what happens to an eclipse observer, is when they see that, in some way your life is changed, and you wanna see more.
There are several things about the eclipse. One thing is that you're really watching the solar system in motion, because [the] Sun and Moon and the Earth are lined up in perfect syzygy. And you can see how the solar system is moving in real time at an eclipse. So that's one remarkable thing.
I think that the most salient aspect of an eclipse is the light; you can take all the photographs you want of an eclipse, and you can look at the wonderful photographs of people like Miloslav Druckmüller, but the light that you see during an eclipse is unlike anything else you've ever seen before - especially the last few seconds of sunshine. You see a scintillating quality to the light, the shadows are just strangely defined, and then once the last bit of sunshine disappears, then you see the atmosphere of the sun, and you get the sense that the sun's corona is a living, breathing object, and where the Moon is, is the blackest black that you've seen in your life. Your jaw just drops, because you can never see anything like that at any other time but during a total solar eclipse. And if you've never seen one before, I guarantee you when it's over, your very first thought will be, "when's the next one?" You'll just want to go there and be there.
Also, during an eclipse, if you're a first-time eclipse observer, I would try and watch an eclipse in the company of some other people, because the people around you, you will hear them gasp and shout and cry. And you might shed a couple of tears yourself, because it's a deeply emotional experience of such incredible beauty, and understanding what you just saw with our solar system in motion.
That is as good a description as I believe anyone could come up with!
Thank you so much for that profound description, Michael!
We can travel halfway around the world, and stand in a perfectly ordinary-looking place, and have the Moon go in front of the Sun - it's just a spectacular verification of the human ability to predict things. My favorite time of an eclipse is always first contact, when the Moon starts covering the Sun, because it tells me the predictions are right, I'm in the right place, I've got the day right with the International Date Line, and - it's really gonna happen!
I was hooked observationally, and aesthetically, and scientifically too, at that very first eclipse I went to with my freshman seminar colleagues in October 1959. In fact, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society held just a few weeks ago as we're talking [in June 2014], four of us from that freshman seminar were attending there, and just seeing that eclipse - seeing things get dark through the window of a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, was just very very spectacular.
Everybody should make sure to look up at the corona in the sky for at least a few seconds.
Thank you for that description, sir!
I ask people in my groups, I say, has anyone here ever seen a total eclipse? And some people will say, "Well, I think I saw one, maybe when I was in the 6th grade," and that's just not the case. If you aren't sure that you've seen a total eclipse of the Sun, you haven't seen one - because it sears itself in your memory. So [to] the people who are considering, or waffling about going to see this or not, here's the picture I want to paint for you: You're standing in a cornfield, or on a street, or in a parking lot, or wherever you happen to be. The shadows turn weird, the sky takes on a kind of silvery cast just before totality. Shadows become sharper, because the Sun is now just a crescent. The air starts to cool, things get quiet, you're enveloped by this sudden darkness, and you look up in the sky, and all around the horizon is twilight in 360 degrees. The sky is dark, the brightest stars and planets come out. In the middle of all of that is a black as the ace of spades hole in the sky, surrounded by this electric white wreath of delicate light that no photograph can capture. I'm sorry - I've seen it, I've tried to photograph it. Photographs just don't do justice to the real thing, and it's often said that as soon as totality is over, especially from people who've never seen one before, the first four words out of their mouths is invariably, "When's the next one?" And I think that people who've never seen a total eclipse of the Sun owe it to themselves to go and see one of these things, because it is a life-changing experience. Certainly, it will change your appreciation for the wonders of astronomy, and it will just make you so much more fulfilled than if you hadn't gone to see it. So go do it.
I don't think that a better description than that could EVER be given! Thank you so much, Kelly!
Let's move on, then - to our next segment, where we'll talk about why you HAVE to be IN THE PATH of totality!