The LoBos decided this past winter to go see the 2017 Solar Eclipse. We got a room at a Hampton Inn in Springfield, TN, pretty much dead center in the path of totality, experiencing 2 minutes and 37 seconds. I guess that, as a travel blogger, I’m expected to write about that angle of it, but it holds no significance to this story.
The room was fine, I got it for a measly 20k Hilton points per night. What was pretty cool was that the hotel was filled with varying degrees of #AstroGeeks. I guess I’ve always been a closet one myself. I was born a few weeks before Sputnik 1 was launched, and, from earliest childhood, was fascinated with space flight, and space itself. I watched every manned US launch from Freedom 7 through STS-3 (Space Shuttle) on TV. I watched STS-4 in person at Cape Canaveral. As a kid, I was actually able to give myself a fever in order to stay home from school and watch a launch. By 3rd grade or so, my parents decided to spare me whatever act of will it was taking to raise my temperature, and adopted a “Paul gets to stay home and watch the launch policy.”
And so, after a grueling 12 hour drive, we found ourselves in the midst of an Eclipse Party on the back lawn of a Hampton Inn in TN. As a total #PhotoGeek, I had gotten myself a proper solar lens filter, and researched the hell out of exposure times for totality. We found ourselves in the midst of a group of serious #AstroGeeks, complete with telescopes, spotting scopes, cameras and lenses I would have drooled over in a former life. I picked the guy with the fanciest looking setup, and asked him what he was using as a base exposure. He didn’t have a clue.
For the record, I guess I would say I got great shots. I captured the “diamond ring,” Bailey Beads, and prominences. You might notice that none of these photos are posted here. They give me no pleasure to look at. They’re exactly the same as anyone else’s “great shots;” they also do not, and cannot, begin to represent what I actually experienced.
In my experience, there were two major parts of the eclipse that one cannot prepare for. Totality, of course. is one. The second is the other-worldly, incomprehensible, quality of light in the 5-10 minutes before Totality. I’ve experienced a few partial eclipses, and yeah, the light gets somewhat dim at it’s peak, but nothing at all like it is just before and after totality.
Annie Dillard, in her 1982 essay about seeing the 1979 eclipse, captures it:
“I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth.”
My own attempts to capture the experience are as unsatisfying as the photos. The sky remained a clear blue. If I looked at the sliver of sun without solar glasses, it was still blinding. The sky, other than the disappearing sun itself, looked pretty normal. The light around us, however, was very dim, and seemingly devoid of any saturated color. It had a luminous quality quite like a platinum print. Here’s some context: At dawn, or dusk, the so-called “photographer’s golden hour;” the light is a very warm tone, which emphasizes the reds, yellows and oranges in the world. They become very saturated, or “vibrant.” Saturated colors were my stock in trade back in my pro days. That was “my look.” People hired me if that was the look they were after. This color was cold, and mostly devoid of color. On an overcast stormy day, the light may have a flat, cold tone, but if you look up at the sky, it will be the same leaden color. In this New Universe, the sky was still a bright blue.
Throwing my psychology hat back on: our brains make sense of new sensory input by comparing the stimuli to what is known. You may have only ever seen or eaten red apples, but if I show you a green one, you’ll know what it is. It has the right shape, textures, size, stem, etc. It’s just a different color. But nothing here was right. It was as if in this universe, the sun was 1000 times further away, or somehow both bright and dim. The colors, what there was of them, were wrong. The luminosity was wrong. It was as if things glowed internally.
I looked back up, donning my glasses, and caught the last sliver of sun, and then a great flash, the “diamond ring.” Removing my glasses, I was standing again in another alternate universe. For all my years, the sun has always been the same: bright, yellow, hanging predictably in the sky. Even in the depths of winter, in Alaska, the sun was still familiar: lower in the sky, dimmer, but the color was right, the light made sense, and the world was right.
In this universe, as if a switch had snapped, a shadow passed over us at roughly 1700mph and suddenly the sun I knew was gone. In this universe, the sun was black. The sky somehow went from a bright but deepening blue, to black. A second before, it would hurt my eyes to look at the sun. Now I was seeing planets and stars. Around the sun, the corona crackled in a pure white, ever-changing, living, writhing alien manifestation around the sun. This cannot be captured in a photograph. At least, I’ve never seen the corona captured as anything other than a fuzzy ring around the black disk. Depending on the exposure, the corona may be big or small. I bracketed my exposures about 12 stops, and could make a reasonably cool HDR composite image of the corona reaching some distance from the sun/not sun. But that is purely artist’s rendition. That isn’t what I saw.
If you see Totality, and really, you must, you will ‘lose your shit.’ How bad you lose it is hard to say, but lose it you shall. There is absolutely no “black hole in the sky during daylight” bucket for your brain to throw this input into. Some people cry, some faint; supposedly, a European King in the middle ages dropped dead of fright on the spot. There is so much unprecedented stimulation that you cannot possibly make sense of it in less than 3 minutes. And then, it undoes itself in exact reverse order. Diamond ring, sliver of sun, weird light, return of normalcy. Except, you will never be the same again.