The Impact of Totality

Having recently viewed a total solar eclipse I have been thinking about the experience. What it was like to observe first hand a truly incredible spectacle of nature? A total solar eclipse is about as dramatic an event our world can produce.

Total Solar Eclipse 2017
The 2017 total solar eclipse as photographed from central Oregon
This is not my first total solar eclipse, but that first eclipse was back in 1979, occurring 38 years ago, my memories dimmed by the passage of time. This event is still bright in my mind, the memories bolstered by numerous photographs and a couple video records.

The experience was astonishing. For the first thirty seconds or so I simply sat in amazement, observing the eclipse and the world around me. Despite old memories and numerous photos I was still amazed by the sight. I knew what was coming, but I was to some extent unprepared for the sight before me. Eventually I gathered my thoughts and took some photos before the fleeting moments of totality expired.

In these modern times we rarely encounter a natural phenomena we are completely unprepared for. Prior to the event we have seen photographs or video, read descriptions from others. We generally know what we are about to encounter beforehand, or at least have a name and a cause we can understand when caught by surprise.

Imagine if that was not the case, consider seeing a total solar eclipse when you have never seen one, never even heard of such a thing, and do not know something is about to happen.

A total solar eclipse happens with very little warning… A normally bright sunny day with the Sun high in the sky. In the minutes leading up to totality you do notice an odd dimming of the light, the sunlight seems wan and powerless, giving less warmth.

Eclipse Overhead
The 2017 total solar eclipse as seen over the trees of Grant’s Spring
Totality is sudden, the bright Sun replaced with a ring of ghostly light. There is very little in the natural world to compare, it is an unreal and impossible thing. The familiar bright, warm and welcoming Sun has been extinguished.

The sky is dark, as if a little piece of night has been delivered, you can see bright stars and planets near the Sun. The birds and other animals around react as if night has come, going silent, or making dawn calls.

The eclipse ends as suddenly as it began, the light returning to the world. It takes a few minutes before your surroundings are reasonably lit. The warmth returns more slowly, gradually the world returns to normal. Twenty minutes or half an hour later there is no sign that the eclipse has occurred.

It is interesting in that you can not see the Moon before or immediately after the event. There is no visible cause to be seen, no ready explanation. A perceptive skywatcher familiar with the path of the Moon through the sky may correctly guess at the identity of the culprit, but anyone without such knowledge would be bereft of any explanation.

Nature can produce a number of similarly spectacular events, occurrences that rend the fabric of daily life. A tornado, a true meteor storm, a violent volcanic eruption, a major earthquake, something that can come without warning or explanation.

Eclipse Petroglyph at Horsethief Lake
Eclipse Petroglyph at Horsethief Lake
Such an event would have been beyond comprehension to our ancient forebears who had no understanding of orbits and celestial mechanics. Some events have context that allow some understanding. A tornado is at least just a stronger wind, a volcanic eruption usually occurs after months or years of activity from the volcano. A total solar eclipse just happens, no warning, centuries may go by since the last eclipse in any given region.

These are the events that an ancient shaman or priest would have struggled to explain, in many ways these events explain why we have religions. We are curious creatures by nature, we must have reasons, we want to know the purpose behind the phenomena of our world. Actually no reason is needed for many events, a cause perhaps, but not a reason. That fact is unacceptable to so many people, we crave explanation.

In the absence of any accessible reason for the occurences of our world we invent myth and legends, we invent religions. A pantheon of spirits or gods, demons and monsters are the agents responsible for the inexplicable in our world. Through such stories the world again becomes a comfortable, knowable place, an eclipse becomes proof that gods roam our world.

Experiencing the phenomena of our world, be it the blooming of a flower, or a total solar eclipse, gives a window into what it means to be human. Our struggle to know, to explain, to understand our world is also a struggle against our own nature.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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