Some people spend their lives chasing eclipses, and some have yet to see their first. Thousands of both categories flocked to remote areas of Kentucky on August 21, 2017. The prospect of seeing the “Great American Solar Eclipse” in its path of totality surpassed any wonder, and any desire for a gas station within 50 miles.
Eclipse visibility cut clear across the United States, the moon’s shadow crossing from Oregon to South Carolina. The New York Times reports that an estimated “88% of American adults—about 215 million people—watched the solar eclipse, either in person or electronically.” For the record, that’s twice the number of people who watched the Superbowl last year.
The path of totality is the strip of land along which the total solar eclipse is visible. The eclipse becomes less and less “total” the further you stray from this path. This has to do with the relative motion of the Earth and Moon, as illustrated below.
My dad and I planned out our own trip months in advance. We embarked on what came to be called “Vic’s Epic Eclipse Road Trip” from New Jersey to Hopkinsville, Kentucky—in a Prius, no less. Unfortunately, weather conditions can make or break an observing event, and the forecast was not looking so bright. The weatherman predicted a substantial amount of cloud coverage along most of the path, much to the dismay of many astronomers.
The place we chose to view the eclipse was called Hopkinsville, Kentucky. This town was called Eclipseville, USA because totality lasted longest there. The morning of the event, we left from our hotel 5 hours in advance to make sure we’d make it to our destination, 40 minutes away, in time. We arrived at a park containing hundreds of canopy tents and telescopes. This odd conglomeration of astronomy enthusiasts waited on the field for hours. There was a loud cheer at the moon’s “first contact” with the sun. For most of us, it was the first time we’d seen the sun as anything other than a perfect circle. We waited in anticipation as the moon crept across the orange disk, nervously repositioning our lenses. The air became incrementally cooler, and, while the sun appeared to be of the same brightness, the surrounding sky grew dimmer. Finally, the moon completely concealed the sun, and a roar erupted from the crowd.
“YEEEEAAAAA-HAAAH,” I yelled.
The entire sky went dark, and we could see the stars. The crickets started chirping as we turned around to see a 360-degree sunset. The eclipse looked like a jet-black disk emanating delicate spikes of light. A flock of birds broke their formation and scattered, confused into the day/night. We were standing in the shadow of the moon.
As the sun slowly emerged for the second time that day, the tree leaves functioned as thousands of pinhole cameras, projecting the image of the crescent sun onto the grass. The sounds of tens of thousands of car horns faded into the background, and for those few minutes, we stood in absolute awe.
The next total solar eclipse visible in the US will happen in 2024, and should pass right over New York. Be sure to catch it.
Published by Deerfield Academy's science journalism magazine, Focal Point.