How and why you should see the Great American Eclipse this month.
Where were you when…?” is a question that usually refers to a shock that binds humanity. One such event will be the solar eclipse occurring across the U.S.A. on August 21. Referred to by many as the Great American Eclipse, it spans the country from Oregon to South Carolina in a band 60 to 70 miles wide. While solar eclipses are not so rare, they usually appear over oceans or in remote areas. It is rare for us to have this event practically in our own backyard. Experienced eclipse watchers say that those who position themselves in this narrow band will feel the temperature drop, see stars and planets appear midday and be changed forever after. An eclipse often leaves viewers feeling not just on the planet, but of the planet. The notion of the universe is not so theoretical any more.
One local umbraphile (aka: eclipse-o-maniac) is George Williams. Williams has been a physics professor at the University of Utah for over 40 years. As a scientist and educator, he sees eclipses as important events for learning. For instance, the 1919 eclipse made Einstein’s career. During that event, his general theory of relativity was finally able to be tested and was proven correct.
Williams says eclipses have been recorded as long as there have been people around to see them. Because of this, we have learned that Earth’s rotation is slowing down, by about a second every century.
He has traveled to see seven eclipses, the first in Hawaii in 1991. “One of the biggest benefits of going to see a total solar eclipse is that it gets you to interesting places,” says Williams. “I don’t know if I would have ever visited Easter Island (2010) if it weren’t for the eclipse.” His eclipse-watching obsession has also taken him to the Black Sea (1999), Western Australia (2002), Eastern Australia (2012), Gabon (2013) and Indonesia (2016). Southern Utah (2012) was an annular eclipse.
Where will Williams be on August 21? “On an organized tour, a Columbia River cruise.” The exact location is being kept secret by the organizers who don’t want to alert the masses.
Patrick Wiggins is the Solar System Ambassador for Utah, recipient of the Distinguished Public Service Award from NASA and public outreach educator for the University of Utah’s Physics and Astronomy department. He counts over five solar eclipses. Wiggins’ recommendation: to look up, but also look around.
“You’ll see people laughing, giggling, crying, doing a happy dance.” Turns out, the witnessing of humanity awestruck is a huge part of the event. “Sure, you know in your mind what’s happening, but still. It affects you profoundly, in your own unique way. It’s indescribable and very personal. Being in totality, you’ll learn something new about yourself.”
Though we know a lot about eclipses, and are continuing to refine our knowledge, much of what happens during a total solar eclipse remains a mystery—something to be experienced and felt, rather than understood.
Both men have seen many eclipses and are still awed by them. “Make the effort,” they both say. “Go see the totality—99% is not the same thing.”
For first-timers, the general recommendation by experts is not to bother with extra equipment such as cameras. It’s a zen moment, after all. Be there. Be present. Maybe the biggest benefit for viewing this eclipse (and for all seminal moments of each generation) is that it inspires presence, an experience of being in the moment: a oneness with their human tribe.
Weather permitting, this will probably be the most-seen eclipse in human history. For those who make it to totality, August 21 will be the day we all talk about for a long time, a generation-defining moment. Unlike other “where were you when” moments, it is predicted, but what happens will, no doubt, surprise and change us. In what ways, we will soon find out.
Getting to totality
This is bigger than Burning Man. Up to an estimated 7.4 million people are expected to travel to the eclipse path for August 21, in addition to the 12 million people who live in the path. Plan accordingly. Secure your accommodations in advance. Bring what you need: water, food, toilet paper, first-aid, coolant and your auto club cards. Keep your gas tank topped. “Some interstate highways in or near the path will be parking lots on the morning of the eclipse,” writes Michael Zeiler of GreatAmerianEclipse.com.
Where, actually, are you headed? See maps of the “drivesheds” here: www.greatamerican eclipse.com/statistics/
How to view the eclipse
You could watch the reflection in water (like the ancients did!), or a reflection from a mirror cast on a wall (don’t look at the mirror), or use an old pair of binoculars to cast light on a paper and make sure no one looks at the sun through binoculars….
But don’t. Get solar glasses. They’re cheap, now—but prices may skyrocket if supplies run low. As of this writing, they are available at the Clark Planetarium and at the Leonardo in packs of five ($10), 10 ($20) and 25 ($50). ClarkPlanetarium.org,
Use only solar filter glasses, made in USA. You can get them (while supplies last) at the Clark Planetarium and the Leonardo, both in downtown Salt Lake City. You can also order them online, but many reviewers claim receiving counterfeits from China, even when they say “shipping from the USA.” Be warned. Counterfeits often come folded, scratched and unusable.
Get them even if you plan on staying in Utah. Viewing a partial eclipse with naked eyes, sunglasses or even welder’s glass is as damaging as looking at the sun on a regular day… and more tempting. Even though it may not hurt at the time, don’t do it. It takes mere seconds for irreversible damage to happen, says Williams. For any viewing other than the total eclipse, NASA warns, “Failure to use appropriate filtration may result in permanent eye damage or blindness!”