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Archive for August, 2017

Thoughts on the eclipse

This past Monday I witnessed, as expected, a total eclipse of the Sun.

I didn’t even have to travel—I watched from a chair on my front lawn.  The town I live in (Sylva, NC) was in the path of the totality.  The weather was perfect, and I was lucky enough to witness a literally once-in-a-lifetime event.

Here’s a picture taken by a friend and fellow physicist, Dr. Louis Keiner of Coastal Carolina University:

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So what did I learn?

  • The world around me wasn’t as dark as I expected. Turn’s out, there not much difference between normal sunshine and a 50%-covered sunshine.  Both are blindingly bright.  You couldn’t even really tell anything was changing until maybe 15 minutes before totality happened.  Eventually things did get darker, and it happened very fast.  Right at totality it looked like sundown, and sunrise. Simultaneously.  It was glowing purple in the east, and glowing purple in the west.

 

  • It was smaller than you’d think. Most people don’t realize how small the Sun and/or Moon look in the sky.  To get an idea, hold your hand at arm’s length.  Look at the fingernail on your pinky finger.  That’s how big the Sun and Moon are in the sky: they subtend that much angle, and only that much.  Don’t believe me?  Try it next full moon.  Movies and TV shows vastly exaggerate how big the Sun and Moon appear.

 

  • As totality approached, the light got strange.   Normally, at dusk, the light fades away into reds and oranges.  But not this time: the light diminished, getting dimmer and dimmer, but stayed a warm yellow.  If you didn’t know an eclipse was approaching you might think instead some weird weather event was about to happen.

 

  • The totality was weird. It looked like a portal to Mordor had opened up, a gate to Hell, an angry black hole in the sky, a dimensional rift into another plane.  Imagine a perfectly round black hole of nothingness surrounded by tendrils of electric blue-white flames.  It didn’t look real.  It looked like fake CGI in the sky.  It looked exactly like Dr. Keiner’s picture, above.

 

  • I didn’t feel anything but awe. I didn’t feel connected to the universe, or to science, or to humanity, or to history.  The only emotion I felt was holy fucking shit.

 

  • The hype was worth it. It was incredible.  If you ever have a chance to see a total solar eclipse, jump at the opportunity.  You won’t be disappointed.  Unless, of course, it rains, which happened to some people I know.  Oops.  I guess, if it rains, there’s always this:

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(Lyrics by Pink Floyd, centered and in italics)

On the day of the eclipse, I will see the dark side of the moon.  And it won’t look like anything at all.

Of course there is no “dark side” of the moon, not really.  The moon is in synchronous rotation with the Earth; the same side of the moon is always facing the Earth, no matter where the sun is.  There is no “light side” or “dark side” since all of the moon gets sunlight equally over the course of its orbit.

There is only a side we can see, and a side we cannot see.

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On the day of the eclipse I will see the same side of the moon that I always see.  And it will be dark.  Darker than any black I’ve ever experienced.

Breathe, breathe in the air. 
Don’t be afraid to care.
Leave but don’t leave me.
Look around and choose your own ground. 

I’ll need to choose my ground carefully.  I need a good view of the sun at around 2:36 in the afternoon.  I’m just North of 35 degrees latitude, so the sun will be south by southwest.  And the sunlight will gradually leave.

Don’t leave me.

Long you live and high you fly 
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be.

Will I cry?

Will I smile?

Will the air be charged with expectation?  Will the thousands of people gathered here that day be excited, or bored, or both?  I cannot touch the sun.  But I can see the sun.  And seeing an eclipse may mark my life, like a bookmark in a sprawling novel.  Or maybe not.

Please smile.

Please cry.

Run, rabbit run.
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down it’s time to dig another one.

Don’t dig a hole: come out into the sun.  For the sun is going away—and soon you’ll be digging holes all over again.


For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.

I’m not likely to see such a spectacle ever again.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

I’m tired of the sunshine.  I want to see the sun blotted out.  I’m 49 years old, but in my own mind I’m 29, and it’s not 10 years that have got behind me, but 20.  What will I see, when the light fades away?  Finally, finally, the moon and sun line up, I hear the starting gun, and the race of the rest of my life is on.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Fuck that.  If I’m shorter of breath, it’s because I’m winded from the exhilarating ride.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time. 
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 
The time is gone, the song is over, 
Thought I’d something more to say.

What is the point of this essay?  Do I even have a point?  At least I have more than half a page—I’ve several pages of scribbled lines.  I should be working or heading home.

Home, home again. 
I like to be here when I can. 
When I come home cold and tired 
It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire.

I hear that the temperature may drop by as much as 28 degrees Fahrenheit during the eclipse.  No nuclear fire to warm the bones, you see.

Far away across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells.

I suspect the flat-Earthers are pissed at this whole eclipse thing.  Using simple physics equations, based on Newton’s law of gravitation among other things, we can predict eclipses hundreds of years into the future.  (Beyond that, things get chaotic.)  But what can flat-Earthers predict?  Squat.  They have no unifying theory…only a claim (the flat Earth!) and dozens of ad hoc assertions to support their shitty claim.  They are faithful, like the anti-vaxxers, like the anti-climate change folks, the anti-science morons, and they’re all on their knees, praying, worshipping magic and woo while the real scientists continue bringing Stone Age hominids into the 21st century.

Us, and them 
And after all we’re only ordinary men. 

Fuck them.  Fuck the anti-science crowd.

Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who.
Up and down.
But in the end it’s only round and round.

The world will go black.  The sky may be indigo.  Twilight, in the afternoon, for a minute and a half.  Black, and blue, and thousands of strangers around me.

The lunatic is on the grass. 
The lunatic is on the grass.
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs.
Got to keep the loonies on the path. 

I think I’ll bring a lawn chair to watch the eclipse.  Put it somewhere on the grass in the middle of campus.  Maybe I’ll put the chair up on that hill, if there’s room.

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon 
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

That’s it!  I’ll be looking at the dark side, the side I always see, and it won’t look like anything except everything.  A shared experience.  Thousands of people, friends, strangers, students, faculty, people I know and people I’ll never know, all looking heavenward, seeing heaven or seeing just the universe, it doesn’t matter, sharing an experience of having a constant in their lives (the sun) disappearing for a minute and a half, reminding us that we are on a planet, a smallish planet, hurtling through space at 60,000 mph, and only through a quirk of fate is our satellite the right size to just barely blot out the light—

You don’t know the power of the dark side.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear 
You shout and no one seems to hear.
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

I’m planning on playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon just before totality.  I’d like to time it so that when the words “the sun is eclipsed by the moon” ring out, the totality begins.

All that you touch 
All that you see 
All that you taste 
All you feel. 
All that you love 
All that you hate 
All you distrust 
All you save. 
All that you give 
All that you deal 
All that you buy, 
beg, borrow or steal. 
All you create 
All you destroy 
All that you do 
All that you say. 
All that you eat 
And everyone you meet 
All that you slight 
And everyone you fight. 
All that is now 
All that is gone 
All that’s to come 
and everything under the sun is in tune 
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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