By Jordan Burkey
I had been dreaming about making this trip to see a total eclipse of the sun for at least seven years. In fact, I picked out the ideal location — Hopkinsville, Kentucky — way back then after considering the predicted path of the moon’s shadow and where the totality would last the longest.
That year, I told students in my Astronomy class to start planning ahead for this “spectacle of a lifetime.” My wife, Ginger, and I even called a hotel in Hopkinsville and tried to make a reservation, but were told the hotel wasn’t set up to take reservations seven years in advance.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun and the moon’s shadow blocks our view of the sun. Because the moon’s shadow is so small, compared to the size of the sun, you must be in a precise location to see the sun get blocked out completely, which is called totality. Total solar eclipses can sometimes take 20 to 40 years to visit the same continent again, and there are eclipse chasers who spare no expense, chartering planes or ships to see these events when they are in remote locations.
Luckily, my wife and I only had to drive 850 miles to Kentucky this summer to see this miracle in the sky. We packed our eclipse glasses (ordered months in advance), six gallons of water, cameras and sunscreen and made sure to get a full tank of gas in case we got stuck in unimaginable traffic. On August 21, the morning of the eclipse, we left our hotel at 4 a.m., taking no chances as we made the final, two-hour drive to Hopkinsville. There, we joined a long line of cars waiting to park on the town’s fairgrounds, and stepped out of the car at about 9 a.m. It was already extremely hot and humid.
We walked around the fairgrounds — by now a sea of people, cars, trucks, tents, cameras and telescopes — looking for a perfect spot to witness the eclipse. As we walked, we kept a record of the license plates we saw (last count was 34 states) from California to Florida, Texas to Maine, and even Ontario and Quebec. Around us we heard at least a dozen different languages and dialects. Everyone was sharing their stories, talking of their trek to this dream spot for seeing the event of a lifetime.
As noon approached, I tested my FaceTime connection on an iPad with one of my former students, Jared Smith ’17, who had won a raffle at Post Prom that promised him 20 seconds of live feed from me during totality. Everything was working, which was a relief, considering that extra cell towers had to be installed to accommodate the 100,000 visitors expected to descend upon this town of 32,000 people.
While wearing eclipse glasses or using cardboard projectors, people in the crowd began to see the moon slowly slide into the side of the sun, blocking more and more of the sun’s full circle. I could hear the sounds of excitement and giggles coming from all directions.
By 1:15 p.m., anticipation was at a fever pitch! In nine minutes, people would be able to remove their eclipse glasses to observe one of the most beautiful sights available on the planet — totality of a solar eclipse. It started (and ended) with the “Diamond Ring,” the last, blazing spot of sunlight shining out from behind the dark circle of the moon, which itself was silhouetted by light-yellow light. We all marveled at what looked like a giant engagement ring floating in the sky. And then, the diamond winked out, and the Sun’s gossamer, silvery-white corona appeared, surrounding the solid black circle of the Moon with a halo of indescribably beautiful, feathered light. The blackness of the moon’s disk, while blocking out the Sun, was so utterly devoid of light, it appeared to be a hole in the sky, teasing those of us watching from Earth to explore the mysteries of the universe.
The fairgrounds had become as dark as late evening and the noticeably cooler air was filled with a joyous sound of thousands of people sharing in this unifying moment. Somehow, I managed to operate an iPad and scream, smile and laugh while trying to share with Jared what I was seeing. I have no idea what I said.
And just like that, like the lighting of a candle, totality ended, and the sun reestablished its dominance over the sky. By the books, our totality was 2 minutes and 40 seconds, one of the longest of this eclipse. To me, it seemed like 10 seconds, and I could have stared for hours in jaw-dropping fascination.
There are so many nuances to this event and experience that will add to how I teach about eclipses in my Astronomy courses. Before, I was always able to show pictures and videos, but now I can explain what it is really like and hopefully inspire my students to look up with wonder, like I still do.
But almost more than the astronomy, the thing I loved most was watching so many people from around the country and around the world forget their differences and share in the excitement of experiencing something so rare and beautiful together. This is something that has been happening for as long as the Sun, Earth and Moon have been here, and will keep happening for billions of years hereafter. If we could just concentrate on the beautiful things happening around us each and every day, and share them with each other, maybe differences wouldn’t matter as much as they seem to.
One thing is certain. It is easy to see how one becomes an eclipse chaser. We will definitely do our best to see the next one— in 2024!