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Awe in the Shadow of a Partial Eclipse – Sky & Telescope

AstronomyAwe in the Shadow of a Partial Eclipse - Sky & Telescope

A partial solar eclipse visible from Houston, Texas, in October 2014.
gpenner / S&T’s Online Photo Gallery

It’s finally here — the total solar eclipse that so many in North America have been waiting for! To stand beneath the shadow of the Moon is to experience celestial mechanics in action, and in community with fellow Earth-dwellers.

Most of us in North America will find ourselves well outside the path of totality on April 8th. But a partial eclipse — Eclipse Lite, if you will — can also offer a sense of wonder, albeit on a smaller scale. Weather permitting, of course.

We get excited about total solar eclipses in part because they are rare: Although the Moon eclipses the Sun roughly once a year, the shadow’s path is narrow and, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, totality occurs only once about every 375 years for any given location.

And it is extraordinary when communities stand together to gaze at the sky in murmuring wonder. There’s an episode in the first season of Dickinson that revolves around the 1860 total solar eclipse, whose path in real life didn’t cover Amherst, Massachusetts. The characters pause their bickering and unite in amazement as the Moon passes in front of the Sun, viewed through pieces of smoked glass (but don’t try that at home!) or as projections on water, linen, and paper.

I’ve heard that experiencing totality firsthand is something you never forget. That it makes the world stop and look up together — ideally, with authentic eclipse glasses for the partial phases. That it has the power to make you feel small and part of something magnificent at the same time. That, for just a few minutes, human beings share a collective astonishment.

But a total solar eclipse is something I’ve never experienced myself. I keep finding myself in the shadow of partials instead.

My East Coast grade school class was kept inside during the February 1979 eclipse. Instead of experiencing this astronomical wonder for ourselves — and perhaps fostering a lifetime of cosmic appreciation — we were herded around a small television screen to watch the Moon slide in front of the Sun while the world darkened just outside the windows.

I missed the total eclipse of 2017, too, because I wasn’t feeling well, and we were worried about getting stuck in traffic. But the partial eclipse that day in Portland was something to behold. Neighbors gathered in a nearby park, all camping chairs facing East. A stirred hush fell over us as the air cooled and shadows beneath the trees turned to swarms of crescent horns.

“Partial eclipses, though of little scientific value, have interesting features of their own,” wrote Mabel Loomis Todd in her 1894 book, Total Eclipses of the Sun, “sometimes showing all the attendant phenomena of entire obscuration, except the total phase. If the Sun’s disk is more than half covered, there is the same weird light, always wan and unnatural, of a quality quite different from mere twilight, and growing constantly duskier.”

On April 8th, I’ll watch the very partial eclipse in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll also tune into the live streams, just like I did in 2017. After the partial eclipse was on the wane here in Portland, I jumped online to watch as the total eclipse made its way eastward. Yes, there was serious eclipse envy, but I also loved witnessing many thousands of people marvel at the eclipse for themselves.

Look, it’s easy for me to grumble about missing this event. Those already in the path of totality are lucky! If the skies are clear, millions of people will be able to view the total eclipse without leaving home. Most of the rest of us don’t have the resources — time, energy, or finances — to be eclipse chasers. It would be understandable if, in my frustrated jealousy, I secretly wished bad weather on everyone from Western Mexico to Eastern Canada so they couldn’t see it, either. Is a partial eclipse a sufficient substitute for the total variety? There will be no full darkness during the day, no moment of equal parts fear and wonderment as the Moon blots out the Sun above the heads of animated crowds.

A solar eclipse of any degree is a reminder that we Earth-dwellers are subject to natural laws and are residents of a larger solar system. No matter what’s going on in our daily lives, or what crises are unfolding across the globe, we are part of a much greater universe. Those fortunate enough to experience even a partial eclipse are offered a stark and stunning reminder of that fact.

Although she was speaking of scientific and observational disciplines, I can’t help but feel 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell’s words encompass all of us who are looking forward to the coming eclipse, no matter where we are in its path: “No one person can give an account of this eclipse, but the speciality of each is the bit of mosaic which he contributes to the whole.”

Humanity — or those of us in North America — will look to the sky as one on April 8th and be united in our awe.

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