Stargazing: Thoughts on the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017


Sorry it has taken me so long to get to my impressions of the Great American Solar Eclipse, but my wife and I decided to take the long way home from Stanley, Idaho, where we viewed the event.

And thus it was that I stood with her a few days after the eclipse in Grand Teton National Park on a rocky outcropping called Inspiration Point.

As I gazed at the rather mediocre lake below, I pondered the meaning of the term inspiration. Here are my thoughts as best as I can remember them.

Inspiration is the first cry of my first-born child, as she lay cradled in my arms just moments after she was born.

Inspiration was my first total solar eclipse off the coast of the Baja Peninsula in 1991. How bitterly my six-year-old daughter cried when we left her behind. How fervently we promised that we would take her along to the next one.

Inspiration was the total phase of the 1991 eclipse. As I stared dumbstruck at the hole in the sky where the sun used to be and saw the iridescent corona encircling the sun like an excess of feather boas, my thoughts turned to my daughter. She must see this some day. Afterward at dinner, my wife, Susie, and I turned our thoughts to 2017.

Disappointment mixed with pride was my reaction to my daughter’s announcement of her appointment to a teaching position at the University of Illinois. Classes began soon after the eclipse day, and she was required to attend mandatory meetings. I could not keep my promise to her.

However, inspiration is knowing that the university is but a three-hour drive from Carbondale, Illinois, the place along the path where totality would last the longest.

We stopped at her place in Urbana, Illinois, to drop off our dog. She had planned the sprint to Carbondale to perfection.

Uninspiring was the bone-grinding, 2,000-mile drive to a primitive campsite near Stanley, Idaho.

And uninspiring indeed was the weather forecast for Idaho and Illinois, which shifted a dozen times from clear to cloudy and back again. Time and again, I checked the weather in Stanley, but time and again, thinking of my daughter, my iPhone took me to the forecast in Carbondale and to all the places along the eclipse path I knew my friends were waiting.

Deeply uninspiring was planning our bailout plan if Stanley turned out cloudy. We would arise (if we had slept at all) at 1 a.m. on eclipse day and dash to the east to Rexburg, Idaho, or to the west to Lime, Oregon, population zero, the site of the defunct and decaying Portland Cement Factory.

The sky was partly cloudy when we arrived two days before the eclipse at our campsite. We shared it with the extended family of Columbus Astronomical Society member Jim Schoultz. Jim’s wife, Marty, had reserved it a year ahead in anticipation of the event.

Jim’s family was only moderately excited about the event. Many of them were there mostly for the family reunion. Most of them had seen partial eclipses. “How much better could the totality be?” they asked.

I replied with writer Anna Quinlan’s famous comparison of a partial and total solar eclipse: “It’s the difference between kissing a man and marrying him.”

They were, for the most part, unimpressed. “You’ll see,” I said.

Inspiring but exhausting was our pre-eclipse hike up the mountain to see Sawtooth Lake. At 10 miles for the round trip, it didn’t sound that difficult, but the last two miles were straight uphill with a net altitude gain of 1,700 feet. As we neared the summit, we passed a young woman with a huge backpack full of camera equipment. “It’s my second time up,” she said. “The first time was for my camping stuff.” Now that’s inspiring.

And as we came finally to the lake, we saw at least 200 tents placed in every conceivable tent location. Some of them had been there for a week, such was their ardor to see the most beautiful of natural events from one of the most beautiful places in America.

And abruptly inspiration hit us smack in the kisser. As we rounded a rock face, there was the crystalline-blue lake. Across from it was Sawtooth Mountain, a granite peak so high up that not a single inch of it was below the tree line. It was all rock and snow pack set against the perfect blue of the lake below and sky above.

We wanted to stay, but we lacked the necessary camping equipment. So down the mountain we went.

A quick trip into Stanley to check the weather confirmed our suspicions. Its population had swelled from 56 to over 10,000. Inspiring, I suppose, but too crowded for my taste. Back to our campsite we went.

As I arose at 5 a.m. on eclipse day, my heart sank as a heavy haze hung around our campsite. But as predicted, the sun burned off the haze and by 7 a.m., I was hustling solar-safe telescopes and binoculars out to our observing field.

And as the moon took its first bite out of the solar cookie and then the bite grew slowly larger, I imagined the shadow of the moon, just 70 miles wide, sweeping from west to east at 1,200 miles per hour across America.

And then, abruptly, the sun was consumed.

How can I find the words to describe the two minutes and eight seconds of totality? The sun’s feathery corona was dotted with red solar prominences, each one a gigantic explosion of outrushing gasses larger than planet Earth.

The corona itself is a strange contradiction. The sun’s outer atmosphere cascades outward, pushed violently away from the sun by the solar wind at hundreds of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. We see in it the force of the sun’s explosive, hydrogen-bomb power. How can anything so fierce be so ephemerally and delicately beautiful?

As our little group’s gasps and cries turned to total, awestruck silence, the first point of brilliant sunlight appeared unexpectedly, but as expected through a lunar valley.

“The diamond ring!” I cried, and the totality was over.

As the sun slowly reappeared, I sat in dazed silence for a long time by my telescope. I imagined the moon’s shadow darting down the eclipse path. “Now Don in Wyoming. Now Brad in Nebraska. Now Krishni in Carbondale. Now Dave in Nashville.”

And my heart flew to Carbondale. “Promise fulfilled,” I thought. We stood apart by 1,500 miles, but that day we bathed our faces in unearthly light as we stood together in the shadow of the moon.

“We have to get going,” my wife said, snapping me from my reverie. “How’s the view? Are you inspired?”

“Nope,” I said, hoping she would not notice the catch in my throat and the tears in my eyes. “But it’s a pretty good view, all in all.”

.neFileBlock {
margin-bottom: 20px;
}
.neFileBlock p {
margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px;
}
.neFileBlock .neFile {
border-bottom: 1px dotted #aaa;
padding-bottom: 5px;
padding-top: 10px;
}
.neFileBlock .neCaption {
font-size: 85%;
}

http://www.delgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/2017/09/web1_tom_burns.jpg

Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.