The total solar eclipse, an event for all the senses

By Greg Mort | Aug 03, 2017
Photo by: Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel

A total solar eclipse is an exotic event disrupting the normal routine of our celestial drama.

This extraordinary event evokes the same kind of wonder as the appearance of a comet or a meteor shower. Throughout history, cosmic occurrences have ignited inspiration as well as consternation. Historically, before eclipses were understood or predicted, ancient people were terrified. Today we have the benefit of centuries of scientific knowledge to diminish our fears and enrich our experience. However, I would like to propose, to more fully enjoy the Great Total Eclipse of 2017, that you witness it as purely as possible by simply using all your five senses.

The morning of Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will race across the continental United States, drawing an unprecedented amount of public attention. Our first truly transcontinental total solar eclipse in nearly 100 years and the first since the inception of the internet, we will have the ability to instantly communicate personal expression/interpretation and information. Even viewers clouded out or not in the direct path of totality will be able to share the event via live feeds on many social media platforms.

As an artist and an astronomer who has logged as many hours at the telescope as at my easel, my suggestion is to view this once-in-a-lifetime event free from our normal appendages of multi-sensory devices such as cameras and or communication devices.

While I compose these thoughts several weeks before the big day, many folks have made their travel plans, booked hotels, campsites, rented RV's, imposed on relatives or strangers in the path of totality. A grand chorus of news coverage, endless but important safety warnings and equipment sales of all sizes and costs has already begun. In fact, if you are just now considering your battle plan, you are behind the curve by quite a bit. Still, don’t despair -- there is hope. Even if your hometown lies beyond the path of totality, a partial eclipse can be memorable if you take time to enjoy the spectacle on multiple experiential levels.

Throughout a total solar eclipse and depending upon your location and good fortune with the weather gods, our sun will be party or completely blocked out by the moon passing directly in front of it. The moon’s close proximity to Earth allows it to appear to cover (eclipse) the solar disk, even though it is hundreds of times smaller than our sun. As the moon's shadow travels across the earth at more than 1,000 miles an hour (because of the moon's orbital motion minus the Earth’s eastward), the viewer will witness the gentle lunar dance lasting about two hours from start to finish.

The sky will slowly darken; temperatures will drop as the air under the shadow cools, causing winds to dissipate and transforming the landscape with an eerie stillness. One should not expect the sky to appear uniformly dark.The area closest to the sun will be darkened and, as we gaze toward the earth’s horizon, it will appear lighter. The highlight, (total coverage of the sun) will only last a little more than two minutes. During these tantalizing few moments, the jet-black disk of the moon is directly over the sun. A breathtaking sunlight halo called the corona (Latin for crown) surrounds the disc. Then, as the dance progresses, light streaks through the valleys of the lunar mountains in a brief sparkling phenomenon known as “Baily’s Beads.”

Be open to all of the unique qualities a solar eclipse has to offer. There is a fascinating list of observations to witness aside from following the disc of the moon as it crosses over the sun. For example, since the entire event spans about two hours, make note of how the quality, tone, color or transparency of light around you changes. From my experience, wondrous and unusual lighting effects are part of the drama of any total or partial solar eclipse. In general, the tone of what would be normally a sunny, bright day gives way to an ever-changing palette of "silvery" light. Some observers have also reported a "green-ness” as the light diminishes.

Those viewers in the direct path of the moon’s shadow will also enjoy the brief appearance of several planets and bright stars. Starting at about 30 minutes before totality, the planets Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury will gradually come into view. The brightest star in our sky, Sirius, along with Arcturus, Capella and Regulus, will add to the spectacle.

Remember that no matter how much of the sun's disc is covered, it is always advised to use proper protective eye shielding at all times. Inexpensive Mylar solar filters and glasses are available from many sources.

To photograph or not to photograph is a very common and important question. I was confronted with the same choice during my first artistic commission as a NASA artist. The veteran members of the Shuttle Art team who had portrayed earlier missions wisely suggested not wasting valuable time snapping pictures. Rather, they recommended focusing on a real-time emotional eyewitness record. I failed to heed their warning and purchased a camera that could take continuous frames.

Fortunately, as Sally Ride became the first American woman to orbit the Earth, I was able to take a number of images and watch at the same time. In the aftermath, I saw what my cohorts meant. My 35 mm camera failed to carry any of the impact of the brilliant light, thundering sound, earthquake-like vibration, smell of the rocket fuel or the sensation of the infrared heat hitting your face even at three miles from the launch pad! In the end, the artwork that I produced for the NASA Art Program came entirely from the overpowering emotional impact of witnessing this powerful event. Photographing was a total waste of time and a major distraction.

For photographs of this eclipse I plan to depend upon the thousands of professional images taken by people well versed in recording such a rare event that will be instantaneously available to the public via the internet, journals and magazines. My first priority will be to savor each aspect of the spectacle, firsthand, record it via the mind's eye, and use all five senses to totally absorb the atmosphere.

However, if it is just too hard to resist the temptation to capture the event electronically, here are a few simple tricks that should produce positive results. Use a tripod to hold your cellphone or camera for hands-free operation. Set up and test your equipment in advance and practice the steps you will follow to confirm smooth functioning. Making your technical process as “automatic“ as possible should allow you the freedom to enjoy the eclipse on a high-tech as well as a sensory level.

Finally, I would also encourage watching the eclipse with others.The more perspectives and memories you rally together, the better your chances are to notice a discreet aspect or unique interpretation of the phenomenon. After the show has come and gone, it is particularly wonderful to discuss and relive the event with your fellow eclipse companions.

Then, you can all start planning for the next eclipse adventure!

Greg Mort is an internationally recognized contemporary artist, a passionate amateur astronomer and member of the NASA Shuttle Art Team who serves on the board of the Lowell Observatory. He is traveling to Madras, Ore., to view the eclipse with family and friends.

Greg Mort watches a solar eclipse. Make sure to use protective eyewear while watching an eclipse, no matter how much of the sun is visible.
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