Hype and hucksterism: Countdown to the 'Great American Eclipse'

One week from today, a total solar eclipse will cut a narrow swath across the continental United States for the first time in a century.

The last such eclipse occurred in 1979, but only in the Pacific Northwest.  Obviously, this was long before the internet, social media, and cable TV could have turned the cosmic event into an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.  Only in America in the early 21st century could a scientific event transcend the mundane and generate the excitement felt by ordinary people across the planet.

The eclipse will be an event shared by citizens around the world, watching live on their phones, computers, and TV.  It will be, without a doubt, the most watched celestial event in history.

Solar eclipses are not uncommon.  There are, on average, two solar eclipses a year somewhere in the world.  Most of the time they appear only over water.  Many times, they appear over vast stretches of uninhabited land.

But given the cultural dominance of the U.S. – the center for news and information worldwide – it was inevitable that a total solar eclipse moving across the U.S. mainland would generate the hype we are seeing today.

MassLive:

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible in a band about 65 miles wide stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. This will be the first coast-to-coast "totality" in the United States in 99 years, though, most recently out of the 20th century's dozen America solar eclipses, Hawaii had a total eclipse in 1991 and the Pacific Northwest had one in 1979. Having seen 33 total eclipses in my life, I implore anyone who can to take advantage of this experience.

My reason for traveling to see the total eclipse may be different from yours. For me, it's a rare opportunity to study the corona, a major part of the sun's atmosphere that can be seen only during the two minutes or so of a full eclipse that the moon blots out the solar surface, preventing sunlight from turning the sky blue. No spacecraft or Earth-based telescope can observe that part of the sun with the quality we get during an eclipse.

But – assuming you're not an astronomer – why should you make the same pilgrimage? It is simply the most spectacular thing you can ever see.

Words can't do justice to the primal feeling of eeriness and awe evoked by this celestial event, but here's what to expect:

During the first hour of partial eclipse, which you can observe safely only through specially certified filters available for a dollar or two (and free at many libraries), you wouldn't know that anything special was happening. But the last 15 minutes or so bring sharpening shadows, changes in the light, sometimes cooling winds and a darkening sky. Faint ripples on the ground, known as shadow bands, may cross the landscape. The most impressive part is the final minute: As the sun transitions from 99 percent to total coverage, the sky abruptly gets about 10,000 times darker.

Just before totality, at the rim of the sun, a crescent of sunlight becomes broken by mountains on the edge of the moon – the so-called Baily's beads. The last bead gleams so brightly around the moon's silhouette, as the sun's spiky corona becomes visible, that the eclipse looks like a diamond ring in the sky.

Spectacular, yes.  But if you live close to where the eclipse will be total, it will be fun to watch the animals react to it.  That "eerie" feeling will be enhanced when you realize that the birds, the bugs, your pets – all will begin to ready themselves for bed. 

Awesome.

You've probably heard the warnings of not looking directly at the sun without special glasses.  If you don't have any, you're out of luck.  Almost all vendors are sold out.

But there's still a safe way to view the phenomenon.  Here's how you can make a "pinhole viewer" so you can watch the eclipse with your kids.

Below is a map of the path of the total eclipse. If you live within a couple of hundred miles of the event, it would be well worth your while to make the trip.  Otherwise, a partial eclipse can be interesting, too.

One week from today, a total solar eclipse will cut a narrow swath across the continental United States for the first time in a century.

The last such eclipse occurred in 1979, but only in the Pacific Northwest.  Obviously, this was long before the internet, social media, and cable TV could have turned the cosmic event into an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.  Only in America in the early 21st century could a scientific event transcend the mundane and generate the excitement felt by ordinary people across the planet.

The eclipse will be an event shared by citizens around the world, watching live on their phones, computers, and TV.  It will be, without a doubt, the most watched celestial event in history.

Solar eclipses are not uncommon.  There are, on average, two solar eclipses a year somewhere in the world.  Most of the time they appear only over water.  Many times, they appear over vast stretches of uninhabited land.

But given the cultural dominance of the U.S. – the center for news and information worldwide – it was inevitable that a total solar eclipse moving across the U.S. mainland would generate the hype we are seeing today.

MassLive:

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible in a band about 65 miles wide stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. This will be the first coast-to-coast "totality" in the United States in 99 years, though, most recently out of the 20th century's dozen America solar eclipses, Hawaii had a total eclipse in 1991 and the Pacific Northwest had one in 1979. Having seen 33 total eclipses in my life, I implore anyone who can to take advantage of this experience.

My reason for traveling to see the total eclipse may be different from yours. For me, it's a rare opportunity to study the corona, a major part of the sun's atmosphere that can be seen only during the two minutes or so of a full eclipse that the moon blots out the solar surface, preventing sunlight from turning the sky blue. No spacecraft or Earth-based telescope can observe that part of the sun with the quality we get during an eclipse.

But – assuming you're not an astronomer – why should you make the same pilgrimage? It is simply the most spectacular thing you can ever see.

Words can't do justice to the primal feeling of eeriness and awe evoked by this celestial event, but here's what to expect:

During the first hour of partial eclipse, which you can observe safely only through specially certified filters available for a dollar or two (and free at many libraries), you wouldn't know that anything special was happening. But the last 15 minutes or so bring sharpening shadows, changes in the light, sometimes cooling winds and a darkening sky. Faint ripples on the ground, known as shadow bands, may cross the landscape. The most impressive part is the final minute: As the sun transitions from 99 percent to total coverage, the sky abruptly gets about 10,000 times darker.

Just before totality, at the rim of the sun, a crescent of sunlight becomes broken by mountains on the edge of the moon – the so-called Baily's beads. The last bead gleams so brightly around the moon's silhouette, as the sun's spiky corona becomes visible, that the eclipse looks like a diamond ring in the sky.

Spectacular, yes.  But if you live close to where the eclipse will be total, it will be fun to watch the animals react to it.  That "eerie" feeling will be enhanced when you realize that the birds, the bugs, your pets – all will begin to ready themselves for bed. 

Awesome.

You've probably heard the warnings of not looking directly at the sun without special glasses.  If you don't have any, you're out of luck.  Almost all vendors are sold out.

But there's still a safe way to view the phenomenon.  Here's how you can make a "pinhole viewer" so you can watch the eclipse with your kids.

Below is a map of the path of the total eclipse. If you live within a couple of hundred miles of the event, it would be well worth your while to make the trip.  Otherwise, a partial eclipse can be interesting, too.

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