Despite longstanding good intentions, I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the #2017eclipse.
But I’m going to give it a try. The weather looks clear, the traffic apocalypse has not yet materialized, and most importantly, Days Inn Harriman today confirmed my $70+tax reservation for Sunday night.
A college friend works in Bend, Oregon for Deschutes County, which overlaps the path of totality. He has been part of planning and preparations for over a year, and says he has a cot in his office, food and fuel stocked up, and little idea what to expect. Oregon hotels have been cancelling reservations and reselling rooms for as much as $1000 per night.
His office will get 99.6% obscuration, but he can’t risk driving 17 miles to see totality for fear of getting stuck in traffic.
I am planning a 500-mile drive to Tennessee, figuring this is the best chance I’ll ever have to see this thing. I went to Paris to see the last eclipse of the millennium. The weather didn’t work out, and I wasn’t in the path, but I’m not complaining. It was a fun trip, and I learned that close to totality isn’t much more dramatic than the darkness of a heavy storm.
It’s a long drive, so I tried to recruit company along the way. thenewgreen, surprise, is out of town on business. cW is also on the west coast. I pestered some friends to consider ridesharing. One was interested but couldn’t get off work, and the other wasn’t convinced that the spectacle would be worth the trouble, especially since we will be driving to Tennessee a month from now for another shot at the baby Barkley. “I mean, we know what will happen. The moon will pass in front of the sun and we know what it will look like” he teased, knowing I would be provoked into a sermon (reproduced below).
I was on a trip, with irregular internet access, so I couldn’t look up the compelling wonders of previous planetary alignments, relying instead on memory and tidbits from a paperback I was rereading after 15 years (it held up quite well).
- Thales of Miletus solved an ancient word problem by measuring the height of a pyramid using the proportional shadow method. He is also said to have accurately predicted a solar eclipse in the year 585 B.C., an early exercise in the nascent habit of rationality, while contemporaries debated whether water, air, fire or vapor were the constituent elements of all things.
A Connecticut Yankee would, in a later age, save his skin with a vivid demonstration of mastery over the material world, correctly predicting a celestial phenomenon that terrified the unlettered.
Long-forgotten scientists in Babylon and Baghdad, Madras and Memphis, made keen observations, painstakingly gathering evidence, solving the puzzles that enabled them to foresee the movement of heavenly bodies and predict the meaningless yet spectacular natural alignments that thrilled the masses.
The Mayans left a cryptic calendar spanning centuries, which Professor Feynman would encounter and puzzle out in his turn, using his knowledge of sun and moon and earth as a key to unlock the secrets.
Astrologers still get excited when a few of the night sky wanderers happen to become more coplanar than usual, appearing to line up in a display of astral harmony. No one serious thinks this matters, but many still look up to see.
“we know what it will look like”
We know what most things will look like any day. But does not your eye linger longer on a setting sun than a random doorknob? Does the gibbous moon advertising her cratered face not command more attention than a pineapple?
We watched the Aegean Sea rise to obliterate the orange disk of the sun on two evenings, but the rarely-observed green flash, still a bit of a mystery to meteorologists and astronomers, did not appear. It is, no doubt, some consequence of refraction, as was the flat-earth sighting of a sheet from miles away, when science said it would be invisible.
Science marches on, obliterating mystery while propounding deeper questions. Our bus-sized telescope, itself a miracle, orbits the earth, peering into the deepest depths, finding galaxies within galaxies in Orion's belt buckle. Our every observation increases our understanding of the known universe, yet the unknown cosmos appears increasingly boundless.
They say the temperature will drop as the sky darkens. Birdsong will become confused, animals depending on their unimproved senses will be restless. A great shadow will speed across the landscape, visible from space.
Thousands of electronic shutters will capture unremarkable photos every second. Untold numbers of selfies will be spoiled by the unforgiving laws of perspective.
A massive migration of curiosity, of exploration and hopeful discovery, will converge on a narrow belt, along with plentiful juice boxes, fanny packs, skin lotions, plastic sunglasses, internal combustion engines, logo-emblazoned T-shirts, and short pants.
Many of them will consume intoxicating substances and their shorts will fall to lows.
But the moon will go on, carelessly looping around our planet, rotating at the same rate so we never see the "dark" side, gradually receding as tidal friction steals her energy. The last total eclipse will pass, then solar eclipses will all be annular, as the moon recedes and then the sun swells up and swallows the inner planets. The temperature will drop as the sky darkens, stars burning all their fuel and fading away one by one, until everything cools down and the universe becomes mathematically simple again.
Until then, we have ephemera to distract us.