We drove to our daughter’s place in the hills south of Columbia, Mo., for the event. She lives about 0.6 seconds from the midline of the eclipse’s totality zone, and her elevated back deck provides plenty of viewing space.
I figured it would be anticlimactic. I brought Roman candles in case clouds covered the dwindling sun; cloudy or clear, the world still turns dark. Eclipse-mania had been stirred to fever pitch by the fake news media, desperate for a reprieve from their primary burden — providing immediate, ongoing and free publicity for the Trump Follies.
Boy, was I wrong.
Solar eclipses result when the elliptical orbits of the moon around the earth, and of the earth around the sun, briefly intersect. Caught between sun and earth, the moon projects its shadow onto the planet below.
The moon is always casting a shadow somewhere — like a dark spotlight that meanders the solar system, and occasionally sweeps across Earth. It’s only noteworthy because there are humans present to see it. If a cosmonaut could accompany the moon on its journeys, always positioning it between his ship and the sun, he could view a perpetual eclipse.
Thinking themselves at the center of the universe, humans long assumed that eclipses were, in some sense, “meant” for them. Unaware of basic cosmology, they explained eclipses by invoking their default solution for all mysterious events. The gods did it.
But why? The gods’ will, as conveyed by their eclipses, has been variously interpreted by diverse cultures. Many of them considered the darkening of the sun to be ominous.
The oldest recorded solar eclipse occurred Oct. 22, 2134 BCE. Unfortunately for the Chinese emperor’s astrologers, Hsi and Ho, they failed to anticipate the event, and were executed for endangering the king. As long as the king knew it was coming, no harm. But if it came as a surprise, the king faced disaster, if not doom.
Babylonian astronomy evolved in part to predict eclipses, considered bad omens for rulers. When an eclipse approached, they installed a substitute to act as surrogate king, just long enough to face the wrath of the gods in his stead.
The Greeks viewed eclipses as signs of the gods’ anger, portending disaster for everybody.
To some, the sun was being eaten by hungry demons, dogs, wolves, dragons, or even the disembodied head of a miscreant god.
Eclipse superstitions still abound. Pregnant women and unborn children stay indoors during the event. In some parts of India, people fast during an eclipse. Faith tells them that food cooked during an eclipse is impure or poisonous.
However, some cultures consider eclipses to be signs of good fortune. Some Italians believe flowers planted during a solar eclipse are brighter and more colorful than those planted any other time.
Egyptian pharaohs, as sons of the sun, wandered through their main temple during eclipses, reminding onlookers that the sun wasn’t really gone after all.
Warring armies have made peace when their battles were interrupted by an unforeseen eclipse.
An eclipse in 632 CE coincided with the death of Muhammad’s son. The Prophet insisted eclipses are not bad omens, but a demonstration of Al’lah’s power. He was half right.
Eclipses advance real science, too. One in 1919 confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity, by demonstrating gravity bends light. During an 1868 eclipse, French astronomer Jules Janssen discovered the second lightest element, subsequently named after the Greek sun-god, Helios. We call it helium.
Aug. 21, 2017, shone hot and bright over mid-Missouri. We stayed indoors, periodically stepping outside into the muggy heat to check on the progress of the eclipse. As totality approached, we took our eclipse-glasses and lawnchairs onto the deck, and settled in.
I’d been warned not to mess with taking eclipse photos — a distracting technical challenge — and instead just watch it! Good advice. I did take pictures of the family as they stared into the sky through dark plastic lenses.
With totality seconds away, daughter L turned on the stereo, not too loud, to play Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Later, 9-year-old N added the Moody Blues’ lilting celebration of space travel, “Floating,” followed by “I Can See For Miles and Miles,” courtesy the Who.
Before and after totality, as a slender crescent of light appeared at the edge of the sun, “Bailey’s Beads” glimmered along the shadow’s horizon — bright pinpoints of light caused when the first hints of sunlight pour through valleys and canyons along edge of the moon’s silhouette, before becoming lost in the glare. They resemble a string of sparkling beads.
I was unprepared for the stunning colors surrounding the black disc during totality. Unlike B&W photos might suggest, colors most pure and vibrant glowed and flowed around the perimeter. The disc edges were razor-sharp.
As the landscape darkened, cicadas began their evening chorus. Night birds called. Swarms of hungry hummingbirds abandoned our feeders to seek their nests. In the hills, coyotes howled.
When a sliver of sun reappeared, the “diamond ring” burst into view, a spectacular explosion of bright light attached to one side of the corona.
With totality over, skies still dark, I lit the Roman candles. There’s my anticlimax.
I bought some eclipse glasses a year ago. We drove nearly seven hours to get to the site.
And brother, it was worth it!
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.