Diary of a Mad Eclipse Enthusiast

The Diamond Ring effect of total solar eclipse. Photo by James Galbreath. 21 August, 2017, Makanda, Illinois.

The Diamond Ring effect of total solar eclipse. Photo by James Galbreath. 21 August, 2017, Makanda, Illinois.

Mon. Aug 21- Totality

Totality was nothing like I expected.

I was prepared to be awed.

I hoped to be dumbstruck.

Instead, totality spread before us as gently as a cool breeze.

A deep, silvery softness blanketed the world.

Totality opened her lovely fingers with a simplicity so delicate, so pure, my mind could not comprehend such unspeakable beauty.

A big whoot went up in the crowd.

The night crickets roared into music.

Children ran and danced.

The rest of us surveyed our world so close to darkness but aglow with iridescent light.

Totality opened herself fully, as if in benediction, blessing our humble earth with the majesty of creation.

For moments too short, we stood as if in a daze beneath the disk of pale blue, garlanded in cool silvery feathers of light.

Then, the moon slipped past the sun a smidge and the Imperial gold of the solar disc was once again apparent.

And all too soon, the world snapped back from this celestial magic.

 Sun. Aug 20- Arrival at Ground Zero, Carbondale, Illinois!

Corn fields as far as the eye can see edge right up to the vast horizon of clear blue sky. This is ideal terrain to watch the total eclipse of the sun. Our little band of family and friends has arrived at our cabin, amidst a gently rolling forests at the edge of Carbonddale in Southern Illinois. For the Californians in our contingent, the heat and humidity are withering. But we have all settled in and await tomorrow, the day of the total solar eclipse, with much anticipation!

Sat. Aug. 19- Attention Citizen Scientists! Here’s an App for Your Phone to Collect Data!

If you’re going to be anywhere near the path of Monday’s Solar Eclipse, join UC Berkeley’s Space Science Lab and Google to collect data for research on the Sun’s Corona. Simply download the app and follow the instructions. You’ll be contributing to one of the largest citizen scientist data collections ever attempted for a single event.

Find out more at Eclipse Megamovie.

Fri. Aug 18- Getting Lit: The Sun’s Corona

When eclipse viewers observe the corona of the Sun on Monday, they’ll be seeing something they’ve only rarely seen before and never for this duration. For the corona of the Sun consists entirely of plasma. And plasma only exists on Earth for fleeting moments- in the form of lightning!

Plasma is one of the four states of matter. On Earth, we’re familiar with gases, liquids and solids. Plasmas, however, form at temperatures millions of times hotter than Earth. When temperatures rise that high, electrons are stripped from their nuclei. From that separation of negatively and positively charged ions, intense electromagnetic fields are formed.

The plasma of the corona is composed entirely of iron. That’s iron so hot, it has bypassed its liquid and gaseous forms because of intense heat, losing 13 of its 26 electrons from its nucleus. This happens at about 1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

And here’s where it get completely wild. The corona is hundreds of times hotter than the Sun’s surface! Yet it radiates only one-millionth as much light. It’s not known for certain how the corona becomes so much hotter than the surface but it’s theorized it’s heated by waves of the Sun’s own intense magnetic field.

The Sun’s plasma field extends millions of miles into space. In fact, tongues of the Sun’s ionized plasma lick at our poles, causing our Northern and Southern Lights.

The corona’s shape changes as it moves through the 11-year Sun Spot Cycle. When the cycle is high, the corona appears rounder. During periods with fewer Sun spots, the corona appears more elliptical. Its shape is determined by the Sun’s magnetic lines of force.

The National Solar Observatory predicts the corona we’ll see on Monday will have faint, straight trajectories from the North and South poles, called polar plumes, and a bulbous protrusion from the equator, called helmet streamers. It will be like nothing we will ever see again!

Mon. Aug. 7- Magic of Astro-Geometry

I refuse to save the best for last! So, I’m going to give you the coolest stuff up front- some amazing astro-geometry! Ready?

You already know that when the Earth, the Moon and the Sun align in a row on the same plane, with the Moon smack dab in the middle, somewhere on Earth the Moon will block out the Sun. Et violà! Houston, we have a solar eclipse!

But have you ever thought about how perfectly the Moon covers the Sun? It’s an exact fit! How can this be?

The Moon is actually 1/400th the diameter of the Sun. The Sun is 400 times further away from the Earth than the Moon. So by this amazing bit of astro-kismet, the Moon  and the Sun appear to be the exactly the same size to us on Earth! And because of this, we get to see an eclipse! This is the only place in our entire Solar System where this astro-geometry occurs.

Interestingly, the Moon used to orbit much closer to the Earth than it does today. The fact of the matter is, the Moon is drifting away from us at a rate of about 4 cm. ( about an inch and a half) per year. It’s a tiny amount, yes, but it does add up. In some time in the distant future, the Moon will no longer perfectly cover the Sun, alas. It will appear much smaller in the sky.

Conversely, 160,000 years ago, the Moon was a mile closer to the Earth than it is today. Imagine being one of the earliest humans living on the great African savannah. What must it have been like to watch the sun slowly carved from the sky? What would you have thought as your surroundings plunged into total darkness? The temperature plummeting. The Milky Way and all the stars slowly came to full illumination in the middle of the day. It’s hard to fathom what we early humans thought for those few, horrifying moments until the the Sun began to emerge again and gradually became whole.

It’s easy for us to understand what is happening with our all modern knowledge. But imagine something that fills humans today with a sense of dread and horror. Could it be that in the far, distant future, our descendants will understand those same things with a perspective we cannot begin to imagine today?

It’s all relative, is it not? Just like the Sun being 400 times the diameter of the Moon and 400 times further away. From where we stand, gazing up to the heavens, for a brief moment, it will seem that the Moon is every bit as enormous as the Sun.

Wed. Aug. 2- Count Down

Plane ticket to St. Louis- check.

Number 14 welder’s glass- check.

Reservations in Makanda, Illinois, population 544- confirmed.

To say I’m over the moon about the upcoming total eclipse of the sun is an understatement. I’ve been looking forward to this since I watched an annular, partial eclipse from an almond orchard off the side of a road near Chico, California in 2012.

That lazy Spring afternoon, my friend and I shimmied our way between rusty barbed wire to find a spot in the dusty field that afforded us both open space and shade. We threw down a picnic blanket and waited for the appointed hour. Slowly, so very gradually, the light changed all around us. In tiny increments, day went to dusk but it was unlike any dusk I’d ever experienced. The waning sunlight came not from the horizon but from straight above. The wedge of sun still visible looked wounded. The hot afternoon cooled.  Eerie does not begin to capture the atmosphere. And that was just a partial eclipse!

On August 21, my friends and I will be in Makanda, Illinois, where the eclipse totality will last 2 minutes and 41 seconds.

I’ll be sharing amazing scientific information about the eclipse in days to come, as well as important safety tips, too. It’s going to be an incredible experience and I want you to join me in the adventure.

Until my next update, bask in the universe, fellow life forms!


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