Total Eclipse

My wife and I went to see the total eclipse on Monday. I’m not one for bucket lists, but I’ve always wanted to see a total solar eclipse in person. I was not disappointed. The only complaint I have about the experience is that damn song running through my head all week.

We had lunch at 17th Street Barbecue in Marion, Illinois – best brisket I’ve ever eaten – and we watched the eclipse from the parking lot.

The first thing I noticed about the eclipse was … not much. We were still inside eating lunch during first contact, but that was okay. The first forty minutes or so of the eclipse was cool enough to watch through our eclipse glasses, but very little changed on the ground. It was only when the sun was 70% occluded or more that we noticed the temperature dropping, and it was well over 80% before the bright afternoon really seemed to dim. Think about that for a second – our human visual systems can scale up and down between full daylight and just a fifth of that, and they can do it so effectively we don’t even notice.

As totality drew nearer, the changes grew more drastic. The sun shrank to a crescent, and the light level dimmed to something like dusk. The local Harley dealer made a light show with their sign. Then the crescent sun narrowed to a smudge and disappeared altogether, and the totality was upon us. The nocturnal insects came out (grasshoppers, I think), and the earth was engulfed in darkness. Not middle-of-the-night, out-in-the-woods darkness; more like suburban lights and a full moon, but still. We were surrounded by a 360° sunset, which I should have expected but didn’t. And up in the sky, where the sun should be, there was a black disk surrounded by a bright ring.

The partial eclipse was cool enough, especially as the sun got really occluded. But the total eclipse was something else entirely. The difference between 98% and 100% is literally the difference between night and day. For the next eclipse in the US, seven years from now, if you have any reasonable chance to get into the path of totality, you should take it. As usual, XKCD is exactly right.

The most amazing moment of the whole experience was the instant when totality ended. A single bright point of light appeared in the ring surrounding the black disk of the moon, and in just a few seconds it bloomed into the brilliance of daylight. The phenomenon is called the diamond ring effect for good reason. The image will be burned into my memory (though fortunately not my retina) as long as I live.

Even more than the beauty and strangeness of the experience, a total eclipse is a window into nature at its most awesome. We are beings clinging to the surface of a big ball of rock, whipping around a much larger ball of gas and fire, inside a swirling collection of many more such systems, which in turn group together into clusters and filaments. The universe is unfathomably vast and unfathomably old.

And that brings me back to the first part of our trip, our visit to the Creation Museum, and how limited the creationist view is of the universe. In their tidy little world, God created the Earth six thousand years ago, put the sun and moon in the sky, divided the land from the sea, and created each and every kind of plant and animal, until finally creating us. And that’s it. God is a gardener. Everything is arbitrary – it is the way it is because God wills it to be so.

The story science tells us is far more interesting. Thirteen and a half billion years ago, give or take a few weeks, a single bright spark (created by God, or Nature, or nothing at all) burst forth from the void and a universe came into being. The closer you look at the universe, the weirder things get, but almost nothing about it is arbitrary. Everything works the way it does because it couldn’t work any other way. Alter the rules even a tiny bit – maybe increase the mass of the electron by a few percent – and everything is different. Stars never form. We are here because our universe is perfectly tuned for our existence.

Given those two visions of the universe, which do you find more awe-inspiring?

This entry was posted in Science.

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