Totality: Instant Analysis
“People weep!” My response to my wife and son whenever they expressed the
slightest reservation on travelling a thousand miles to a dusty parched
ridgeline in Central Oregon to view a Total Solar Eclipse. “People WEEP!!!”
In 2005, I took this shot of the Cigar Galaxy.
My first, and last, astrophoto. “I have a baby now, I’ll revisit
Astrophotography when Dash moves out.”
When showing children the Orion Nebula, I say “it’s a big old space cloud, where
stars are born. When you’re grown up, those clouds will look exactly the same as
they do today.”
We talk about stars whose light has been traveling for thousands of years,
and galaxies whose light left them for our eyes millions of years ago.
Astronomy is slow and patient. Critics might say static and lifeless.
The universe moves quickly, but the sky changes slowly. We don’t see much change
in our lifetimes. For the bulk of it.
There are some things you can see change. The sun appears to move pretty
fast, but that’s a trick. It looks like it moves 360 degrees in 24 hours, but it
actually only moves 1 degree a day. 360 degrees in a circle and 365 days in a
year: that is not a coincidence, it’s a definition (with the roundoff causing
the leap years).
The sun's movement is revealed by the stars: look to the same place in the
sky every night at the same time. You’ll see the constellations creep to the
west 1 degree per night. I see the sun’s motion clearly because once a month
around the new moon, I leave the bright city to go see the stars. Every month
the sky has shifted to the west quite noticeably, like clockwork (360/12 = 15
Over the course of a year, the sun rises and sets in different north and south
positions along the horizons: the annual seasonal cycle.
The moon moves much faster than the sun, relative to the stars. Each night the
moon moves to the east by around 12 degrees, rising and setting about 50 minutes
later every day (one revolution per month).
Other than that, there isn’t much movement you can see without a telescope.
Meteors. They’re really fast, gone before you know it.
The planets wander (that’s what “planet” means). Venus is known for sometimes
being the Morning Star and sometimes being the Evening Star. She varies over
months. As planets go, she’s the most dramatic. The other planets change their
position as well, if you watch.
With a telescope, there are other time scales you can see. The tilt of Saturn’s
rings varies with her 29-year long orbit. Right now they’re as close to
fully-tilted as they get. At her next equinox, in 2025, they’ll be edge on to us
But by and large astronomy is slow.
If you have a solar filter, you can watch the sun rotate. You can clearly see
the sunspots move off to the east if you watch over the course of a few days.
One of the fastest events, one that you can watch over the course of an evening
(with a scope), is the motion of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. From
night-to-night their positions around the planet change dramatically. Very often
one will cross in front of the planet (a transit). Or they’ll drag their shadows
across Jupiter (a shadow transit – an eclipse!). You can watch Io cross all the
way across Jupiter in an hour. It’s one of the fastest motions you can see in
Jupiter itself spins very fast. It’s day is 10 hours long. If you watch look
at it three times in five hours, the Great Red Spot will be visible at least
You want easily visible motion? A good steady telescope will allow you to watch
peaks and valleys appear or disappear on the Moon. The terminator – the line
dividing day and night – would be razor sharp and straight if the Moon were a
perfect sphere, but it isn’t. The shadows exaggerate the height of mountains and
the depths of valleys. .
You can watch the very jaggly terminator make clearly moving shadowplay.
Crater central peaks are light islands in a black bowl. You can watch the light
island shrink or swell depending on "time of lunar day" (month).
But astronomy is slow, slow, slow.
Even an eclipse is slow. It takes a couple hours for the moon to travel the half
a degree across the sun. This is still pretty fast for astronomers, but not too
far from what their used to. They can handle it.
I had seen a good partial eclipse in 2011, so I knew what to expect.
Totality, though: that’s CRAZY fast.
And a LOT is happening during totality as well as in the few moments before
We’re told: don’t get caught up in the equipment. If you have your eye on an
eyepiece, you’re going to be missing all that’s going on around you. The
movement of the shadow itself (if you have a high position on a hill or ridge).
Temperature Drops. A unique change in lighting. Shadow Snakes. (Shadow
Snakes??!!!??). Tongues of Flame. The Diamond Ring. The CORONA!!
So you’re on the lookout for all this, while trying to remember to just look and
The next thing you know it’s over, the limb of the sun erupting from behind the
moon and forcing the eclipse glasses back on.
Wait! I did get a permanent image in my memory of the Diamond Ring. But I
didn’t ever really get a solid visual on the Corona. It was so bright near the
surface. Were there four “wings” or five? I thought it would extend further out.
Was it the slight overcast? The solar environment was much smaller than I
I DEFINITELY did not see the Shadow Snakes.
What do you mean it’s all over? Wait, wait, wait!
I thought this might transform me, it hasn't. I’m left wanting more,
but not in that “I’m going to travel the world chasing eclipses” kind of way.
Immediately, I start to exclaim “What? This is like a long romance with an
extended arduous courting, with a two minute payoff and then it’s OVER? You’ve
GOT to be kidding me!” A woman within earshot quips back “You get used to it.” I
Within a few minutes, a few hours, you come to appreciate it for its rarity,
even if you didn’t weep.
In some ways, the totality is like a sunset. When was the last time you really
watched the sun sink into the horizon? Perhaps you were looking for a Green
Flash. Perhaps the clouds were particularly glorious that evening. Try to
remember everything you noticed about it. Or how about this question: when was
the last time you sat down purposely to enjoy a sunset?
Now imagine this: what would you do if you knew that tonight’s sunset would be
the last sunset you would be able to see for the next seven years. How would you
feel? How would you approach dusk? Now imagine that last night’s sunset was the
last you’d see for seven years. How does that feel?
A Total Solar eclipse is, by far, the fastest, most dramatic thing visual
astronomy has to offer. By far. And it’s RARE. Hence the “Wait, wait, wait!
More, more, more!”
So imagine now that there have been no sunsets for a year and that the last
one was spectacular. You bump into someone who you know went out of their way to
appreciate that last sunset. Fellowship.
And THAT is one of the most meaningful parts of the whole experience. The
fellowship of it. Being a part of shared joy and awe. Totality may not be
transformation, you may not weep, but it is a life milestone: you never forget
the awe, the joy; it’s all so new and wondrous.
Watch with friends, watch with strangers. Reviewing the video of the eclipse,
the voices at the beginning of totality carried an unmistakable wonder to them.
A unique timbre. It moves me to hear it.
So am I an eclipse chaser now? 30 hours after the event, no? Will I spend
thousands of dollars to see another eclipse? Probably, the moon shadows some
A nice incentive to go to those places you always wanted to go (South America
in 2019 and 2020). If it’s on my travel list already, I’ll coordinate. If it’s
not, probably not. Texas to Vermont in 2024: absolutely. I’m searching
Travelocity as we speak.
Believe what you may about metaphysics, Totality is rare, it is stunning, it is
glorious and it is literally cosmic.
Weeping, while not mandatory, is fully understood.
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