Totality

On August 21st, 2017, millions travelled from around the world to form new cities in fields, in parks, on mountaintops and on beaches, each individual leaving their lives behind for a day or a week, spending tens or thousands, hiking, driving, biking, flying, to a thin strip of time and space where for one or two minutes they might experience something.

The eclipse is of academic interest, of course. It is an observation. It is a triumph in the history of science and mathematics, demonstrating the practical applications of predictive power. Imagine not knowing this was going to happen, imagine before we could predict this, I’ve overheard my fellow pilgrims say. And yet, even knowing, even having pictures and descriptions and all the data, nothing can really prepare you, they say.

To see it alone, or in a crowd? My natural instinct would be to hide as far as possible from humanity and experience it by myself in an isolated place, to not have that experience sullied by the influence of greater humanity. Which is exactly why I chose to accept an invitation to a festival, and see it with 500 others. I’d heard eclipses are best in a crowd, with the same sort of crowd consciousness that creates emotion and excitement at a sporting event, and this is a feeling I’ve been trying to explore and understand. So I accepted the invitation to give a talk and workshop at the Atlas Obscura Total Eclipse event in Oregon. A day of lectures and events would precede the eclipse, with scientists and photographers and science and telescopes and math and excitement.

In the weeks preceding the event, I was too busy to do the eclipse research I’d intended. I was scrambling around frantically trying to save my research group, exhausting my network of any possible connections to funders and foundations. When the weekend before the eclipse arrived, I doubted I had time to go at all… I’d just gotten back from the east coast and was more burnt out than ever. If I hadn’t committed to giving workshops at the event, I probably would have skipped it. But surely after all the stress of the weeks before, I could take two entire minutes for myself? And maybe those two minutes, in this experience that’s supposed to be unlike anything I’ve experienced before, maybe it would give me a new perspective. Maybe I’d think of something I hadn’t before. Maybe the answer to all our funding woes was right in front of me all along, and only by the light of a total solar eclipse could I see it.

The festival itself was a pretty cool event, with scientists and telescopes and talks and friendly humans. With all the running around preparing and giving workshops and trying to find food and be in the right place at the right time, I didn’t really get to relax and enjoy it until the morning of the eclipse. Having acquired caffeine and a lounge chair, I settled in not long before the eclipse began, trying out my eclipse glasses for the first time. The sun was yellow and round.

Perhaps if this weren’t the first excuse I’d had all weekend, all week, all month, to settle down and lie in the sun for a bit, I would’ve been less eager to watch the eclipse from the beginning. Certainly very few others at the festival were interested in this part. Looking at the group as a whole, you wouldn’t think anything special were happening. But I wanted to see it begin, not just come in at the climax.

I’m not sure whether I expected it to start with a cookie cutter bite being taken out of the sun, but the way it started was that first the sun looked very yellow and very round, and then it started looking not quite so very round, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on for a few moments, until the un-roundyness started to have a particular place, as if the sun were a little bit flattened somewhere on the upper right. It made me wonder, without the predictive power of science, at what point would you look at the sun and say “yes, this is an eclipse happening”? If this were only a very slight partial eclipse, would I second guess myself and by the time I rubbed my eyes and looked again it would be over as if it had never happened? I like to catch these liminal moments when they come.

Eventually the eclipse started to look like an eclipse, and I alternated between looking at the sun as if a piece were taken out, and looking at it as if it were blocked by a big round moon, and looking at it as if it were something else altogether. I looked at it as the sun chasing the moon and slowly overtaking it, I looked at it as a deflating balloon. For a bit it looked like the head of a cat or a fox, with two pointy ears. I looked at it as if it were not an eclipse at all, because without the glasses the sun remained its usual too-bright-to-look-at self. I knew the others at the festival knew it was happening, but it was easy to imagine they didn’t, that no one on earth did, that it could come and go unseen like so many mysteries.

I looked at it from the perspective of the sun, losing sight of the earth. And from the moon, accidentally rolling between the sun and earth. “Oops, sorry earth. Didn’t mean to block your light.” Like walking down the sidewalk and suddenly realizing you’re between a group of tourists and their photographer. Now everyone’s staring at you, moon. Usually no one would be so gauche as to stare at your dark side, but you just had to get in our way. Not your fault, you’re just trying to move along on your usual commute, we’re the ones in the way.

The first sign of the eclipse that didn’t come in the form of a yellow smudge through dark glasses was that I started to feel cold. I suppose that if the eclipse weren’t in the morning, dampening the heat of the rising sun, I might have noticed it earlier. I expected it to get progressively darker, but that’s not what happened. First came the cold.

Even as the sun approached a sliver, mere minutes before totality, the sun remained too bright to look at, the day looked perfectly sunny, and if it felt a bit cold and the shadows were a bit sharp, who could say why? Without the glasses and the foreknowledge, who could say anything definitive about that moment? It was easy to imagine people not knowing about a partial eclipse, telling each other: I felt such a strange chill this morning, there was this feeling in the air, a sharpness to the world. How strange, me too, me too.

Now I know why we cover this event with science. No matter how intellectualized, it’s impossible to guard against the supernatural pull.

As the sky began to dim, in those final minutes before totality, everyone was watching. The sun was a sliver of a crescent, and then the edges started to pull in. A few people started to cheer, and then more, as that sliver shrunk down to a dot. We egged it on. Come on, eclipse! Almost there! Yes! Yes, we did it! Eclipse achieved!

I cheered with the others, and laughed, as that last dot of sun disappeared. I’d expected the eclipse to look like something at that point, a corona around the sun, a dim circle, but through the glasses I saw nothing. Ah well. I took off the glasses to look around me at the dimmed landscape, smile at the people around me, see the sunset sky in all directions. Kinda cool, I guess, but is it really worth all the hype and trouble?

If there was one thing I’d learned about eclipses, it’s that you’re not supposed to look at them with the naked eye. I’d just assumed this applied to the total eclipse during totality as well, so it wasn’t my intention to look at it. But then I did. And then I could not stop staring at it.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but this wasn’t it. I’d seen photos of coronas around suns, but this wasn’t that. And I’d expected that those photos, like many astronomical pictures, are long exposure, other wavelengths, and otherwise capturing things the naked eye can’t see. I thought there might be a glow of light in a circle, or nothing, or, I don’t know. What I did not expect was an unholy horror sucking the life and light and warmth out of the universe with long reaching arms, that what I’d seen in pictures was not an exaggeration but a failure to capture the extent of this thing that human eyes, and not cameras, are uniquely suited to absorb the horror of.

I protest the idea that the sun, or the moon, or the hole in the universe where the sun was ripped away from us, was black. It was not black. It was a new color, perceivable to the human eye only in certain conditions. I’ve read the literature on color perception and color philosophy. I’ve got the ontological chops. I feel qualified to make this statement, that this thing in the sky was not black. I could understand why people would describe it as black, just as without a word for red you might describe blood as black. But it wasn’t, and so no photograph could possibly capture what it’s like, and no screen can yet display it. 

In a photograph, the eclipse is black, and it simply isn’t black in real life. In a photograph, the sky around the corona is black too, which is fine because the sky actually is black, but no photograph captures how the black is finally seen to be as rich and beautiful and colorful as we should have appreciated it to be all along but we’ve lost our chance because its every fiber is compromised, the corona is a howling spider sucking the life out of the darkness and into this godawful thing that shows us what nothingness looks like.

I know, intellectually, it’s not a hole or an emptiness. It’s the moon, now revealed to be this unholy unfeeling collection of matter hung precariously above our beloved planet by an invisible string. It is heavy, heavy, heavy in the darkness. 

The moon will never be the same; its dark side cannot be unseen. Gone is the being of pure light flying gently across the heavens. It is a corpse, a dead thing, the dusty remains of old Theia horrifically attached to its sister planet by a withering gravitational umbilical cord.

Color experience is about more than just wavelength or brightness, it is a thing dependent on human physiology. We’re highly evolved to experience different colors based on context, or see the same objects as fundamentally the same colors whether lit by a red dawn or noonday sun. And I tell you, next to the blackness of the sky, in an entire world with the wrong light, the eclipse was not black but some other color that screamed evil.

When the sun came back, when that unnaturally asymmetric corona slithered back out of our universe, when the blue sky started creeping back over the dark side of the moon to cover up what no one was meant to see, everyone cheered. Live music began. We danced and sang as the shadows started to grow soft again. After a few songs official events were over, and after several conversations with other event goers the sun was halfway back to normal. At this point I peeled away from the crowd, grabbed a couple beers, and lay back to enjoy watching that awful shadow leave and allow us our sun back. It was warm again. 

Watching the eclipse end over an hour after totality was my favourite part, the best part. Everything was becoming right again, all on its own. I watched as the sun became whole. Round and yellow with soft round shadows.

In those final moments, I felt a happy anticipation. There was no longer a bite taken out of the sun, and then it was kind of roundy with a dent, and then pretty roundy, and then very very round and yellow. I clapped and cheered to see the sun come back to normal. Only a couple others took note. Behind me, most of our little city had already disappeared. Around me, the staff were swiftly clearing away the infrastructure to return this two-minute city to an empty cow pasture. I put the glasses back on and enjoyed my 2nd beer while watching the beautiful yellow round sun above me.

When I looked around again, out of 500 eclipse-goers, there was just one lonely tent left in the field standing apart from the rows of identical staff tents. One tent, and one car in the parking lot.

I put the glasses back on and cracked open another bottle.

Vi Hart

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