On Monday morning, the continental United States will experience a brief astronomical event guaranteed to inspire primal wonder. The moon will traverse the path of the sun, blackening a 70-mile-wide ribbon that will cut diagonally across the country from the Oregon coast to South Carolina. Day will become night. Light will become dark.
If the sky is clear, the stars will be visible, perhaps even some planets. Time will feel as if it has sped up, or stopped, and the immense clockwork of the universe will play out before us: a colossus of fire hovering in space, blocked by an inexorable stone moon that will seem to devour and then unleash it – a crossing of paths that in ancient times felt like the apocalypse to our prehistoric ancestors.
This will not be a man-made event, like, say, the 1969 moon landing. This will be a moment to realize that we, too, float through space, passengers on our own sphere, one sphere among billions. This will be a moment to look up from our smart phones and see that we are infinitesimally small.
Total solar eclipses are rare in the parts of this sphere inhabited by humans. The last one to be seen in the United States occurred in 1979, and the path of totality covered only a sliver of the American Northwest. The next one will be in 2024, stretching from Texas through the Midwest, then up through New York.
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This one will start at Lincoln City, Oregon, at 9:05 a.m. Pacific time. Totality occurs first in Oregon at 10:16 a.m. and last at 2:48 p.m. near Charleston, S.C. Sadly, Sacramento isn’t in that totality band, and won’t experience a total eclipse until Aug. 12, 2045. Still, California’s capital can expect 77 percent coverage.
At this point, our information age has seen to it that we know all the eclipse do’s and don’ts, FAQs and factoids. Don’t look directly at the sun, for it will sear your cornea. Do consider investing in special sunglasses, or punch a pinhole in a piece of light cardboard and hold it over another piece of light cardboard, which will project a tiny image of the moon crossing the sun’s path.
Don’t look at the sun through binoculars or a telescope, lest that be the last thing that you see in your lifetime. Do drive carefully, if you must drive, and watch out for pedestrians.
But technology, even here in the future, is less adept at communicating the awesome. There is something about confronting the cosmos that tends to change lives.
In 1986, American Scientist magazine asked 75 scientists how they ended up in their professions.
“When I was 8 years old, I looked up at the sky and wondered what the stars were made of,” replied the University of Delaware astronomer Harry Shipman.
“I saw the stars in Egypt’s sky and asked my father about all the light bulbs in the sky and who collects them in the morning,” said Malak Kotb, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Dakota.
“I got a telescope from my father,” the now-deceased nuclear physicist and arms control advocate Victor F. Weisskopf remembered.
To the extent that we can now explore Mars, or fly through Saturn’s rings, or cure disease or understand the terrifying warming of our own fragile planet, it is because generations of men and women were called to science by their own intersection with natural wonder. Like the 1957 Sputnik satellite launch, or the 1960s race for the moon, Monday’s eclipse will beget scientists.
And that is something to give thanks for. Times have not been so wondrous lately. We are pulled by dark forces; we have not been ourselves. Some of us, at incalculable cost, have taken the great gift of factual knowledge for granted. Indeed, some of us have retreated into ignorance and superstition. To the extent that Monday’s eclipse restores a modicum of perspective, we can literally thank heaven for hitting pause.
In that pause, we hope this darkened nation will have a moment to step outside, away from screens, away from distractions, and for just a few minutes, allow the universe to remind where we come from and who we are.
We are stardust. We are light. We are dark. We are infinitesimal in the cosmos. And like this eclipse, we are oh, so brief. There is nothing like us. Now we are here. And now we are gone.