by Leanne Ogasawara
Does anyone have any good eclipse stories?
My 2017 expedition had its start in a conversation about supernova.
“Wouldn't it be amazing to look up one night and see a supernova as bright as the full moon?” I said to him.
An astronomer, he looked worried and began mumbling about how hard it is to predict something like that. No one can say when a star will explode, after all. But then, he brightened up and asked,
“Maybe it's not exactly a supernova, but what would you say about a total eclipse of the sun?”
Hmmm, I thought. That did sound rather intriguing. So, I began reading everything I could get my hands on about totality. And the more I read, the more excited I became. For totality is much more dramatic than a supernova. Day becomes night? And as the stars and planets become visible in mid-day, people can easily become overwhelmed by it all. Some are terrified; while others become utterly beguiled by what they see unfolding in front of their astonished eyes. There are those sparkling beads that shine out like laser beams as the light of the sun comes streaming through the valleys of the moon's surface. And what about the famed diamond ring that encircles the moon as it comes seemingly to rest for a moment in front of the sun. Then there is the corona–something most people will never have the chance to see in their lifetimes if they don't experience a total eclipse of the sun. Reading, I realized that there are few natural phenomena that have the power to awe people like this.
He was right, I realized, the eclipse would be even better than a supernova– a life event. And so, before my astronomer knew what had hit him, I had devised the perfect plan: we would follow some of my new favorite eclipse chasers into the mountains of Wyoming to watch in the Grand Tetons National Park. In retrospect, it might not actually have been the wisest plan since; well, duh, mountain weather. And living in LA, Oregon would have been easier for sure. But I had fallen in love with the Tetons when I was 11. Seeing them is one of my most vivid childhood memories, as the mountains had an almost transcendent effect on me when I was a child. Like the Alps and the Himalaya, the jagged peaks in Jackson have an otherworldly beauty that for some people engender visions of heaven. Or maybe of Shangri-La. So, imagining myself experiencing a total eclipse of the sun in that wonderland appealed to me greatly!
And with that, we had our plan.
Managing to secure a room in 2016 which was just outside of totality (the best we could do even a year in advance), we headed out by car ten days prior. Of course, being an astronomer, my husband is no stranger to weather-related disappointment and was worried almost from day one about the clouds. II thought by the end of the trip he might have permanent neck damage from craning his head so often to keep looking at the sky day after day. I hadn't really thought of the weather, to be honest. It wasn't till we ran into one of his colleagues in Zion –and they traded intel on weather patterns and various NASA satellite maps of average cloud coverage by region that I realized I might have made a mistake. As his colleague pointed out weather could be tricky in the mountains and he had come to the conclusion that the safest bets were eastern Oregon and eastern Wyoming (near Casper). While in Zion we cooked up a Plan B. If the weather was at all iffy the day before, we would head to the precise spot his colleague had picked to view it– about four hours due east on Highway 24 toward Casper in Moneta. In the absolute middle of nowhere, pulling up stakes and leaving my Shangri-La for Moneta was not exactly my first choice–so we hoped for the best (and my husband continued craning his neck).
Arriving in the park a few days later, we still had to pick our “spot.” Since our cabin was outside totality we would have to drive in –and parking was extremely limited in the national park. I knew I wanted to be in nature with a view of the mountains. But I also wanted to be near people. This only left a few realistic possibilities –and we quickly narrowed in on one in particular, which turned out to be the perfect spot since it was in the very place that I had fallen in love with the Tetons when I was a child. Up the hill at the Jackson Lake Lodge.
Isn't it heavenly?
On the morning of the eclipse, we set up our chairs at sunrise, watching moose and elk while we waited for the “greatest show on earth.” People were scattered up and down the hill, but as most were sitting in low chairs or on blankets, they were invisible in the grass. Down the hill a bit, the serious eclipse chasers had set up camp. Further down still, amateur astronomers had telescopes set up and were generously sharing the view with the crowd. I have to say, it all harkened back to the days when everything in our lives was not a consumer event. There were no eclipse goods or advertising. And the “entertainment” feeling was absent. It was laid back and very festive in all the best ways.
Up on the hill, it all started like it did for everyone else. A partial eclipse. And just as everyone tells you, the big show started happening at totality minus five minutes. We had decided to try and see the shadow. I had read countless descriptions of the fear and awe that this racing shadow of the moon caused in people– like a great dragon barreling down on you at 2000 miles an hour. With this in mind, we had picked the spot on the hill with a perfect view west, which we planned to face moments before totality. I don't know if it was the mountains or what, but we never saw a shadow bearing down on us–and instead watched as the wind rose and everything got cool, it was as if the lights were switched off. It was at that moment that all around us, unseen in the grass, people began cheering and screaming and clapping.
And wheeling around, we saw it.
Whereas my husband's reaction was in line with the descriptions of elation I had read by so many eclipse chasers and shadow addicts, mine was more akin to Annie Dillard's more measured response. It's true, I felt a kind of dread. For the view in front of my eyes was utterly unnatural. Dennis Overbye called it the “Eye of Sauron effect”. And that was how it felt. It did not look like the moon blotting out the sun, as I intellectually expected, rather looking at the black hole in the sky it resembled nothing more than how I imagined a black hole to look. I was transfixed. And Annie Dillard's words came to mind,
Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself.
My husband meanwhile was hyperventilating in pure ecstasy next to me as all around me people were shouting, “Oh my God!”
And then, it was over. I didn't expect a 360 degree sunset as the lights came back on. And the world never looked so beautiful. More than anything for me, what was most awe-inspiring about the entire thing was to feel the excitement of science; to actually be able to glimpse the mechanics of the solar system and that nuclear reactor that is our sun. It was incredibly interesting. This is not surprising since before eclipses were tourist events, during “Victorian times” eclipses were rare opportunities to perform important scientific observations that could not be done at any other time. Think of the expeditions of 1919 to confirm general relativity that saw teams of scientists in Brazil and off the coast of Africa racing in the few minutes of totality to try and understand: does gravity bend light?
Even more fascinating was the 1878 eclipse–otherwise known as the original Great American Eclipse. There is a great book by the science journalist David Barron (who was also in the Tetons for the eclipse) called American Eclipse that tells the story wonderfully. This eclipse was also related to Einstein. For before Einstein, the discrepancy in Mercury's orbit was impossible to explain.
Have you ever heard of the hypothetical planet Vulcan?
Without Einstein and relying on Newtonian physics, “peculiarities” in Mercury's orbit were impossible to understand. French astronomers realized the best way to understand these anomalies was by positing an inter-Mercurial planet, whose gravity would influence Mercury's orbit in such a way to explain the anomalous observations. There was a precedent for this reasoning, as just a few decades earlier a French mathematician Urbain Le Verriere posited the location of a new planet, Neptune, using only mathematics and the observed anomalies in the orbit of Uranus.
It is said that Le Verrier was able to discover the new planet there “on the tip of his pen.”
Indeed, without general relativity, physicists were being fully rational to expect an inter-Mercurial planet. Going as far as giving it a name, the eclipse of 1878 triggered a race to discover this invisible planet lost in the glare of the Sun.
These scientific eclipse expeditions illuminate what is so fundamentally exciting about seeing a total eclipse. While today's scientists are often tied to their computer screens, 19th century scientists trekked to remote locations –dragging with them their telescopes and spectroscopes, not to mention early cameras. Here, they would have to perform complicated tasks under pressure cooker conditions –considering they had get it all done during a few minutes of totality. Astronomer and artist Tyler Nordgren has written so movingly about totality, saying that it is not merely the the covering of one thing up (the sun) by another (the moon), but rather a total eclipse of the sun has the effect of pulling back a veil to show us what is really there. That is how scientists have seen it anyway. Nordgren reminds us that our view of the Universe is filled with shadows and obfuscation. Behind the light that we see in stars and galaxies is intergalactic gas, dark matter, and dark energy, all running the show. In order to see one thing you need to get rid of another.
Is Vulcan there or do we need to re-think our standard model of gravity? What is in the center of our galaxy? What phenomena are shrouded behind atmospheric noise and interstellar dust? What truths go beyond the realm and reach of science itself?
It reminds me so much of that famous picture of a medieval astronomer dipping his head under the edge of the firmament–and finding, past the fixed stars on their crystalline spheres, our limitless universe. Called the Flammerion Engraving, it is from a book printed in 1888 by Camille Flammarion. the image perfectly embodies what happens when the veil is parted and we come to see that –as Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” More than anything, this picture captures what I felt on August 21, 2017. First, watching the partial eclipse and seeing the moon relentlessly moving across the Sun, I experienced viscerally the motion of the spheres. Then suddenly, shockingly, the veil of our beautiful blue sky was parted to reveal the limitless space of the universe.
Eclipse Photography at top and below by the incomparable Ian Boyden
For more on the Dark Sky Movement:
My 3QD essay, RIVER OF HEAVEN” (天の川)
A Sky Wonderful with Stars: 50 Years of Modern Astronomy on Maunakea, by Michael J West
For more on the national parks:
My 3QD essay: Being Badass
Tyler Nordgren's Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks
For more on eclipses:
Annie Dillard's classic essay, “Total Eclipse”
David Barron's American Eclipse