In the early afternoon on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse traversed the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. In Kansas City, morning storms cleared and blue sky opened just in time to view the event, from the first sliver of moon shadow through totality. It’s the only total solar eclipse I’ve witnessed. I’m struggling to put the experience into words.
I started studying astronomy in 2nd and 3rd grade. In 3rd grade, we had to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up and the title of mine was “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” Space was my first fascination and my first love.
I’ve seen partial solar eclipses in person. I’ve seen images of total eclipses and they’re beautiful. Astronomically speaking, eclipses aren’t that rare or complex. They happen pretty often, simple mass body physics.
So I expected the total eclipse to be spectacular, gorgeous. I expected it to be cool and interesting. I expected to be fascinated by it and by the effect it had on insects and animals. I expected to completely geek out over it.
I never expected it to be so powerful.
I didn’t expect to respond emotionally. I didn’t expect to still be thinking about it, still struggling to find words to describe the experience. I didn’t expect it to be truly awesome, in the oldest and largest meaning of that word.
It was atavistic. It was primal, visceral. An experience beneath rational science, a phenomenon that resonates in the deepest parts of us that exist before language or logic.
It left me shaking and happy beyond all reason.
I never expected it to be powerful.
It’s entirely coincidental that the moon is just the right size and at just the right distance to appear the same size as the sun to those of us gazing up from the surface of the Earth.
If the moon were any smaller, or farther away, we would never have total solar eclipses at all. If the moon were any bigger, or closer to Earth, it would block our view of the corona.
Consider how weirdly lucky we are that it’s just the perfect size, at just the perfect distance, to fit the sun so perfectly.
Some call it providence. Some say it’s random chance. Either way, it’s amazing. I’m still shaking from the experience.
Once the sun is around 1/4 occluded, the world takes on a strange, high clarity twilight. Similar to the quality of light you see just before a tornado hits but without the greenish tinge. Objects gain sharper edges, as though the world now renders at a higher resolution, but the crescent of the eclipse makes shadows appear to have fallen out of focus.
You would expect the world to grow progressively dimmer as the sun becomes more occluded but it doesn’t. It remains a bright twilight until just before totality. Once totality hits, complete darkness descends in a matter of seconds—as dark as a night with a new moon. As soon as totality passes, when just a slender sliver of the sun reappears, light returns just as quickly.
There’s no equivalent experience during a partial solar eclipse: even at 95% occlusion, the world remains bright. The nighttime darkness of totality and the unnatural suddenness of it is what provokes such atavistic reactions.
The Earth has a surprisingly high proportion of heavy elements in its crust. Given what we understand about the mechanics of planetary formation, a planet the size and composition of Earth shouldn’t have this many heavy elements so close to the surface.
It’s likely these heavy elements played a crucial role in the evolution of complex life.
It’s probable the reason the Earth has so many heavy elements in its crust is because of the moon. The impact which knocked the moon loose rendered the Earth molten. The gravitational influence of the moon kept things roiled up near the surface as the Earth cooled and formed a new crust.
The sun sustains life, day-to-day. But the moon created us.
I’ve heard many stories of people shaking, crying, laughing, dancing. Downtown KC erupted in cheers when totality arrived. There’s no precedent in our quotidian lives to teach us how to react to the utter darkening of the sun in the middle of the day, but we couldn’t not react.
I understand now why people built religions around astronomical events.
One of the more fascinating aspects of a total solar eclipse is how it affects animals: they get confused, think it’s evening, get scared, get excited. Cicadas buzz, dogs bark or whine or growl or run around, night hunters come out to look for prey.
Human beings are animals, too. Even when the higher functioning parts of our brain understand exactly what’s happening, our lizard brains still get confused when it suddenly goes dark in the middle of the day. It’s an absolute contravention of all our diurnal instincts.
What I found most interesting, observing my own reactions to it, is that my emotional lizard brain reaction didn’t in any way overwhelm the rational part of me. I was shaking, happy, excited, in awe—and also thinking about the physics at work, calmly observing the world around me. There was no competition between the different aspects of my awareness: the rational and the irrational. I was all of both, simultaneously, and both heightened.
That’s a very rare experience.