Eclipse: It's Not Just a Twilight Novel

By now most people have probably figured out that an eclipse is coming this Monday, as it tends to do here in America every so often. Still, I'm not sure everyone's completely clear on all the details, so I thought I'd answer some common questions:

Q: Why does everybody have to scream at everyone about everything these days?

No, I mean about the eclipse. 

Q: What the heck is this thing? Is this some holdover from the 2012 Apocalypse?

This is a reasonable question, since we're still waiting for the 2012 Apocalypse. An eclipse simply happens when the shadow from one body passes over another body. For instance, one day I was lying on a beach when movie maker Michael Moore moved by. Moore blocked out the sun and ruined my tan, thus saving me from skin disease. (He refused to give me an autograph, just because I asked him when his totality would be over.)

That's Michael, in the middle. Not so very big after all.

Q: Huh?

Moore is rather portly, although I've been gaining on him. If you're a liberal, feel free to insert Trump's name. Oh, you mean "huh" about totality? That's the area of the Earth's surface that's completely covered by the Moon's shadow, usually only for a minute or so. During totality is the only time--and I mean ONLY time--when you can safely look directly at an eclipse without eye protection. Unfortunately, the area of totality is only about 70 miles wide. For example, in northeast Indiana the eclipse will cover about 86% of the sun, so go buy those glasses.

Q: What will happen if I look at it without protection?

Have you ever watched that episode of the TV show Supernatural, when the psychic gets to look at the true face of an angel? It's like that. Nothing left but smoking eye sockets. And yeah, that looks cool for a second, but only to everyone else.

It's perfectly safe to look at the eclipse during totality. But if even a sliver of sun is showing before or after, POOF! Seeing eye dog time. (Or, you could maintain some vision but have "just" permanent damage.)


Q: What's so important about this eclipse?

Well, it's cool, even more cool than smoking eye sockets. Also, it's rare in that, for the first time in almost a century, it will traverse the entire U.S. from coast to coast, over fourteen states. That's happened only 15 times in the last 150 years.

I can block my house from here!

There are between two and five eclipses every year, but a total solar eclipse only happens every 18 months or so. Not only that, but when they do happen it's often in a place where most people don't see it, like over an ocean, or the Pacific northwest. According to this mathematical guy from Belgium, any certain spot on Earth will see a total eclipse once every 375 years. That's an average, and it's math, so I'm just taking his word for it.

This is the first time in 38 years that a total eclipse was visible anywhere in the continuous U.S. For perspective, at the time Jimmy Carter was President, and gas was 86 cents a gallon. St. Louis, which is in the path this time, last saw totality in 1442, when gasoline was even cheaper. Chicago, which saw one in 1806 but will miss this one, will next see totality in 2205, when fueling your flying car might be very expensive.

Scientists have determined there are two small areas of the country--one in northeast Colorado, and one near Lewellen, Nebraska--that haven't seen a total eclipse in over a thousand years. Talk about bad luck.

Q: So I'm guaranteed to get a good show?

Oh, heck no. See above joke about the Pacific northwest; the 1979 total eclipse over that area was largely unseen due to clouds and rain.

This isn't a Hollywood movie: Any number of things could spoil it, from bad weather to having Michael Moore stand in front of you. But I wouldn't sweat Michael (can I call him Michael?) who I've heard is looking after his health much better these days. No, the big question will be whether weather cooperates. My wife and I are heading into the path of totality, and I can pretty much guarantee a day-long driving rain, or possibly a hurricane, will hit central Missouri at about that time.

What I probably won't see

 Q: What effects can we expect?
  
Fire and brimstone, dogs and cats sleeping together, total chaos, new super powers, pretty much the worst parts of the Bible. Wait, that was in the movies. Well, it'll get dark, 'cause--no sun. In the path of totality you'll see stars (or clouds), and you'll also be in for a rare treat of seeing the sun's atmosphere with the naked eye. One cool thing I noticed during a partial eclipse was that sunlight passing through the trees cast thousands of little crescent shaped shadows.

Some animals might be fooled into thinking it's twilight. In fact, eclipses have been known to thin out the local vampire population.

Geeks like me will geek out. People who don't understand, or don't care about, the difference between reality and Hollywood special effects might be disappointed.

Q: What are the greatest dangers?

As with many things in our modern society, the greatest danger might be driving. Officials expect major traffic jams as millions of people try to get into the path of totality. For those who don't make it on time or aren't expecting it, the danger is that they'll be driving down the road, trying to stare at the eclipse, only to ram someone who pulled over along the side of the road to watch the eclipse. Don't do either of those.

Otherwise, there's that smoking eye socket thing. Interestingly, during partial eclipses when the brightness doesn't seem too bad, infrared waves from the sun can still cause damage by overheating the eye, in a boiling egg kind of a way. Disturbed yet? Me, too.

Enjoy these eclipses while you can: The Moon's orbit is slowly getting larger, so the time will come when it will be too far away to completely cover the sun, meaning the end of total eclipses. Scientists predict this will happen in less than 600 million years, so go look while you still can.

6 comments:

  1. We won't see much of it here. And even if it was a total eclipse for us, odds are it would be a cloudy day.

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    1. It's so unfair! Everyone should get a chance, just once, to see totality in person. We almost died of heat stroke and had to wait hours for traffic to clear, but it was totally--or should I say, totality--worth it.

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  2. It will be about 80% here. You are right about the Pacific Northwest and 1979. The only visible was the rain coming from the clouds above.

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    1. Much to my surprise, we had perfect weather here. Well, perfect view--heat exhaustion was a real danger.

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  3. Apparently, in about 100,000 years or so the moon will have moved so far away that total eclipses will no longer be possible given the smaller size of the moon relative to us. I'm devastated.

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    1. I know, right? I'm not sure how we can go on.

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