The Great American Eclipse of 2017

Posted on August 17, 2017 at 6:00 am

by Nathaniel Youmans

Shortly after 10am on Monday, August 21, 2017, a terrific spectacle of light and darkness will leave millions of people suspended in awe. It has happened before (most recently through the Pacific Northwest states back in 1979), but on this morning many will witness the first total solar eclipse since 1918 to cross the continental United States from coast to coast. It will be a day of huge proportions.

An estimated 12 million Americans live in the cities and communities immediately in the eclipse’s path of totality. Over 200 million more will be able to see a partial eclipse (that’s us, here in Spokane). Thousands more eager adventurers, scientists, and eclipse-chasers from around the world will gather together along the path of the eclipse as it crosses the country for one single purpose: to witness one of the most incredible spectacles of nature, one that most living Americans have never (fully) seen. It will be a collective moment unprecedented in our nation’s history!

Yet for all its epic fanfare, a total eclipse comes on somewhat quietly—a dark dent will appear on the rim of the sun more than an hour before complete totality. When the sun is completely blocked out, you see and feel many things in a short matter of two minutes. The temperature drops noticeably. The birds hush, tricked into thinking night has come. They may fly to their roosts under the false impression of evening. Like an owl hunting at night, an eerie, twilit hush will descend, and the surrounding landscape will take on the uncanny metallic hue of a dream. To behold a total solar eclipse is immersive, embodied, and unforgettable.

Among the most fascinating features of an eclipse is the corona, the ever-present solar “crown” of plasma that we can only see during totality. The corona gives off a reddish hue and appears as beautiful wisps streaming off the edge of the sun, like an artist’s signature at the edge of her painting. Formed by violent reactions, which result in ionized atoms of iron (Fe), calcium, (Ca), and nickel (Ni) having most of their outer electrons torn apart, the sun’s corona actually exceeds temperatures of more than a million degrees, and is many times hotter than the actual surface of the sun! The corona is the single hottest phenomenon we will ever see with our naked eyes. And it’s exquisite.

Eclipses have mystified the human mind since humans had minds to wonder with. Imagine witnessing a total solar eclipse thousands of years ago when our understanding of astronomical science and celestial motion was dim and coded in a storied language of myth rather than math.

Virtually all cultural mythologies, at some point in history, have explained eclipses in one way or another. Personally, the eclipse myth that most resonates with me (ex-Viking, what can I say…) is the old Norse version: two ferocious direwolves, Sköll and Hati, are perpetually chasing the chariot-drawn sun and moon (Sol and Mani, respectively) throughout the heavens. When the wolves finally catch up to the sun and moon, they will devour them and usher in the great, apocalyptic collapse of all things known as Ragnarok.

Well, the wolves have never really caught up with the sun and moon. But they do get close enough every so often to take a scrumptious bite before the sun and moon wriggle free, albeit with fresh craters or tender sunspots, and continue Tom-and-Jerrying across the universe.

As you prepare for this upcoming eclipse, take a moment and consider noteworthy eclipses throughout history. They can provide some intriguing food for thought (or for eating, if you’re a cosmic direwolf).

November 30, 3340 BCE

Flashback almost five thousand years to the Loughcrew megalithic monument in eastern Ireland. This is the oldest known human record of a solar eclipse. It predates other ancient eclipses recorded in China and Egypt by over a millennium. It is literally written in stone. If this is your field of study, you get to be called an archaeoastronomer. How awesome is that?

29 CE, 33 CE & 569 CE

Passages in the Christian gospels describe an eclipse near the death and crucifixion of Jesus. Historians and astronomers have pinpointed two possible eclipses that fit the bill. Fast forward a few hundred years and a few hundred miles, the Koran describes a solar eclipse that preceded the birth of the prophet Mohammad. It is auspicious to note how closely these eclipses align with milestones in world religions and world histories. Hundreds of years from now, what will they say of “The Great American Eclipse” of 2017?

May 29, 1919

Astronomers Sir Arthur Eddington and Frank Dyson designed an experiment to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity, first published four years prior. General relativity suggested that the gravitational field of the sun would bend and distort the incoming light from faraway stars (in the Taurus constellation). These astronomers set out to measure that light from two locations—Brazil and the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa—and compare results. With our sun’s light temporarily blocked, those distant stars could be seen and measured. Results were compared. Different positions of those stars as measured in Brazil and Principe confirmed the warping of light due to the sun’s gravity. Einstein was right. Thus the foundations of classical physics crumbled. Bring on the quantum era!

So I will ask you a few days early: Where were you for The Great American Eclipse of 2017?

On the day of the eclipse, you can stop by the following libraries for our Solar Eclipse Day program to make a pinhole projector and safely view the eclipse: Argonne, Cheney, Deer Park, Medical Lake, Moran Prairie, North Spokane, and Spokane Valley. Whatever you do on this historic day, don’t forget your eclipse glasses and your sense of wonder!


Eclipse: Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon, by Frank Close

Totality: The Great American Eclipses of 2017 and 2024, by Mark Littmann and Fred Espenak

In The Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses, by Anthony Aveni

Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses, From Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets, by Tyler Nordgren

Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy [DVD], by Alex Filippenko

Cosmic Phenomena, by Gabriele Vanin

If You Were the Moon, by Laura Purdie Salas


NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, by Terence Dickinson

A favorite, this is a concise introduction to amateur astronomy that includes beautiful photos and charts useful for beginners.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H. A. Rey

Great for kids and adults alike—this provides a classic introduction to the constellations.

To Know the Stars, by Guy Ottewell

This month-to-month overview of the constellations includes well written stories and the wonderful illustrations and charts that go with them.

The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, by Terence Dickinson

A complete guide to amateur astronomy, it even includes chapters on astrophotography.

Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope—and How to Find Them, by Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis

For those that want to go a bit deeper with a small telescope, this excellent reference includes tips for finding each object.

Night Sky with the Naked Eye: How to Find Planets, Constellations, Satellites, and Other Night Sky Wonders Without a Telescope, by Bob King

You don’t need a telescope to be an astronomer! This book does a terrific job of describing how with lots of great photos and illustrations.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard

This title shares an informative and sobering commentary on our disappearing dark skies and what we stand to gain by preserving them.

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