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What You Need to Know About the Extraordinary Upcoming Eclipse

Taking a moment off from promoting #thelastcounterfeiter to talk a little bit about total solar eclipses, or TSE, coming on April 8th. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it from friends and neighbors lately because I'm a bit of eclipse junky. My interest in TSEs bloomed back in 2017, when I interviewed 2 of the 3 individuals who had seen more TSEs than anyone alive for The New Yorker ahead of the 2017 “Great American Eclipse.” That was my first TSE, and after seeing it, I became totally hooked. Those guys I interviewed (who happened to be brilliant astronomers) even warned me that I could become addicted to the experience.

            The first thing you need to know is that seeing an eclipse is not the same as seeing a total solar eclipse. There is no comparison. If you are not within the 100-or-so-mile-wide Path of Totality where the shadow of the moon, or the “umbra,” crosses Earth and fully obscures the sun, you will not see a total solar eclipse. What you will see, entirely through protective lenses which are absolutely necessary unless you want to damage your eyes, is a partial eclipse. There’s no shame in that. It is often the beginning of a deeper journey, but it is not even remotely close to the same experience as seeing a TSE.

            So what is the difference? Simply put, if you travel into the Path of Totality and the skies are not covered by clouds you will be in the full shadow that the moon casts when it completely obscures the sun. This means that when the moment of totality comes, you can remove your eclipse glasses and see it with your naked eye. No words can ever adequately describe what it is like to experience this magnificent celestial event with your naked eyes…but I will try here and fail.

            It is a sudden, impossibly dramatic moment, filled with stunning beauty as the sun’s corona and the solar wind shoot out from behind the moon, revealing a silver so beautiful and heartbreaking that it often brings tears. The entire world changes in an instant. Stars come out. The temperature drops. Confused birds start to fly home. It is an incomparable feast of the senses that creates an intense, visceral and emotional experience that is completely unique and precious.

            During the April 8th TSE, the Path of Totality will transect a broad swath of the United States, serving anyone in America who is in the Path and has good weather a big celestial meal, up to about four and half minutes of totality (the closer you are to the Path’s centerline, the longer it lasts). This is an exceptional amount of time in totality that won’t be seen again until 2045.

            That meal will bring a phenomenal dessert. In the final moments, as totality ends, the sun whips out from behind the mountains of the moon. It starts small, and as it quickly grows literally every color under the sun explodes out of that mountain crevice like a rainbow bullet that culminates with spectacular glory. This is called the Diamond Ring Effect. It is more beautiful than any jewel any billionaire on our little planet will ever posses.

            Every TSE is different, and somewhat different depending on where you are. The first one I saw, above the south fork of the Payette River in Idaho, was sharp and dramatic. The second, which I witnessed in Chile above the Pacific Ocean, was softer and more sublime, like a delightful living and evolving watercolor painting. This next one will be my longest, but wherever you are the most important thing is to be in the Path and see it with friends. You may well make new friends. The shared experience has that effect.

            If you can make it into the Path on April 8th, I wish you great weather. Get that, and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime. If you can’t make it this time or you get clouded out, TSE’s happen about once every two years, but you may have to travel far to see one. Planning ahead is important. Most airlines and hotels have been booked for months, and last minute prices get insane—so does traffic, particularly after the eclipse. People arrive into the Path at different times, but they all tend to leave at the same time to get back to their non-eclipse lives. That creates jams. In 2017, it took me and my friends 10 hours to make the 80-mile drive from the Sawtooth Mountains back to Boise. It was totally worth it.

            A last, important piece of advice: Don’t waste your time trying to photograph it on your cell or take a selfie. You’ll just miss that much more of the experience. Cell phones are not equipped to handle the direct light of the sun, even during totality. This is an experience best captured by your eyes and your heart.


The total phase of the August 21, 2017, eclipse, photographed by Rick Fienberg, from the American Astronomical Society Eclipse Across America website.

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