Friday, August 25, 2017

Waiting for the Sun to Go Out

When I planned a year ago to go to Kentucky to see the total solar eclipse I made sure to plan other activities around it, thinking that it would be a long way to travel for just a two minute event. What if it rained? What if it wasn't that impressive? So we took a week and stopped along the way at J.D.'s parents' house and to visit some friends in Charleston, WV and Murray, KY. On the way back we spent the night at Natural Bridge, VA and the safari park there. I loved the vacation aspect of it, but I was wrong about the total eclipse not being worth the 13 hour trip. It was worth it.

Me standing on the side of the lake, waiting for the sun to go out.
I know a lot of people saw the partial eclipse, and I'm so glad that everyone was so excited about it and went out and saw it! But folks, it ain't a totality. Totality is something that can't actually be captured properly on film. Cameras just can't depict all of the wavelenths correctly, and they can't get the detail of the sun's corona without blocking out the other things like how weirdly lit the world is, and how many shades of color the sky has during the eclipse.

A view of the partial eclipse through one of the solar scopes.

We watched from the shore of Kentucky Lake as the light grew dimmer and dimmer as we got closer to totality. It was like having sunglasses on without actually having sunglasses on, or like stadium lights at a night game. We saw the dappled sunlight from the tree leaves turn into a carpet of crescents. The leaves act like pinhole cameras so they show what's happening above.

Sun crescent shapes in the leaf shadows.
However, it didn't dim noticeably until about five seconds before the sun disappeared behind the moon. Then it was like some cosmic dimmer switch was turned. Suddenly the air temperature dropped ten degrees and everything got dark. Not dark like sunset though. Dark like, well, like something had blocked out the daytime.

Because the sun was almost directly overhead and not shining through a lot of atmosphere like it does at sunrise and sunset, there was no red-ish quality to the light. It was still very much noon sunlight, just blotted out to a sort of alien twilight. It felt weird and off somehow.

Everyone watching the last sliver of sun disappear.
This was about 1 minute before totality.
You can see it's still almost noon sunlight. It dimmed quickly.

Right overhead, waiting for us to take off our eclipse glasses with the last disappearing sliver of actual sun, was a glowing black hole in the sky. No one could really stop themselves from gasping and exclaiming something like "Wow" or "Oh my God" in awe when they took off their eclipse glasses. It was that bizarre.

This is the most accurate to the corona shape that I saw. I counted four corona "limbs"
but the photos all show a more even brightness all around.
Sergio was at our campground so he photographed what we were seeing.
Credit: Sergio Signorini

We could see some of the brighter stars and planets. Jupiter was up, as was Venus. Mars and Mercury were hanging out somewhere in the sun's corona. Two minutes seemed to pass by in ten seconds as we tried to take it all in. Then a flash of bright light on one side of the moon forced us back to viewing it through the protective dark tint of the eclipse glasses. I wished I could put everything on rewind and watch it again, but I will perhaps see this only once in my lifetime. (Though now I've been turned into an avid eclipse chaser so I'll definitely be attempting to catch the one in 2024.)

Credit: Sergio Signorini

Afterwards we crowded around the professional photographer's camera to see what they got. We weren't disappointed. The corona looked more detailed than what we could see with the naked eye, and she'd caught some images of the "diamond ring" which is the effect when the sun is just barely covered by the moon and shines out brightly on one side of it. Even today I've gotten more emailed pictures that various people took of the eclipse, but again- none of them are exactly what our eyes saw. I'll have to rely on my memory for that.

The "Diamond Ring" effect
Credit: Sergio Signorini
I am very glad I got to see this thing, and encourage people to try to see the total solar eclipse in 2024 which will run from Maine to Texas. Partial eclipses are nothing like totality. You have to be there to see it!

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