Sunday, April 7, 2024

The 2024 Total Eclipse, A Celebration of Awe

Luna Has Her Eyes on Sol One Week Before the 2024 Eclipse (Marineland, FL)

Tomorrow the moon will pass in front of the Sun for two hours. Millions, including myself, are scrambling to get to the path of totality. I've been surprised that some have no interest at all in the eclipse, wondering what's the big deal?

How to answer such an offhand, indifferent question?  Sure, it's easy to say an eclipse is cool, but a total eclipse is quite unlike any partial eclipse experience. If you are in the path of totality and the sky is clear, you will experience a strange twilight. The Sun's atmosphere, the corona, will be on display. And nature will experience a bit of a jump scare, as the reliable solar entity we take for granted too often, will be obscured. Birds tend to take flight in uncertainty, and humans will be all astir, too many probably taking selfies.

But the awe in the moment reaches well beyond the visceral experience of one. For a human we can take stock in the fact only for less than 500 years have humans generally accepted that the Earth revolved around the Sun. So even though some ancient cultures had calendars that predicted solar eclipses, only very recently have we grasped the scale of what's involved. The alignment of these three bodies in space due to their orbits, tilts and sizes is quite thought provoking. Here are a couple photos to scale to reinforce this arrangement.

To Scale, The Moon's Size and Distance From the Earth

To Scale, The Sizes of Earth, Moon and Sun as well as the Moon-Earth Distance 

I hope these two images give you an appreciation for how perfectly aligned Sun, Moon, and Earth must be to have the shadow of the Moon fall on the Earth. Not pictured, the distance of the Earth from the Sun itself is gargantuan. Add to that, the knowledge that the Moon is slowly drifting away from the Earth in its orbit, and in a few million years (a small percentage of the 4,000 million year age of the Earth and Moon system) a total solar eclipse viewed from Earth will no longer be a thing. We are living in a very special time.

So a total eclipse can be a moment of world solidarity, a time to celebrate the shared universe we live in, to forget about political, financial, and existential strife that we humans create for ourselves. A total eclipse can ground us in the fact that we live in a shared foundation of reality that we can agree upon. This foundational evidence, and the astrophysics we've assembled since Copernicus, puts to shame divisive world perspectives including Flat Earth theory and every religious creation myth our ancestors came up with as first-stab, imaginative hypotheses. It also gives us as individuals a chance to walk away from social media, content streaming, fantasy novels and celebrity gossip to experience a slice of real being. 

On the other side of the total eclipse all the divisiveness and distraction is sure to return. Still, just maybe that shared moment of awe might give us as a global community an inspiration to work together in the real world toward making our planet a better place to live for all its sentient beings, amateur human astronomers included.

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