The Cosmic Dance Goes On

For the 2017 solar eclipse, my house in Washington was within range for observing the transit. The amount of occlusion was something like 80%; that sounds like a lot on paper, but even 20% less sun is enough sun that our eyes don't notice or care. Hell, I've since learned that 95% occlusion is still basically unnoticeable if you don't have a viewing filter. Overall I'd describe that experience as "kinda neat" - I could see the moon's silhouette against the sun, and that's not exactly an everyday thing, but needing to look through special glasses that effectively hid everything else from view siloed the effect somewhat. A fleeting glimpse of something cool happening far away isn't nothing, but you know... it's not ideal.

For the 2024 eclipse I was much better placed - in the town of Lampasas, Texas, about an hour outside Austin and sitting unambigiously within the actual path of totality. There was still a lot of squinting into special glasses involved, but for 4-ish minutes the Cool Thing stopped being a far-off abstraction and very literally enveloped the world around me.

You have certainly encountered descriptions of what it's like, and I'm happy to add my own corroboration. Dusk arrived very suddenly in the early afternoon, complete with some hazy sunset colors around the horizon. Confused crickets started a chorus. The sun was still briefly visible as a ring around a deep black center, no glasses necessary, before vanishing entirely. Four minutes later the whole thing happened in reverse with a sped-up pseudo-sunrise. If you didn't have eclipse glasses or some other optical filter, the window where anything unusual was apparent was only about ten minutes at most, but you would absolutely notice.

I had read accounts of exactly that, so on some level I knew what to expect, but the experience of being there is totally, categorically different. Understanding the words "it got dark for a few minutes in the afternoon, then the sun came back" is so completely remote from having seen it firsthand. Maybe it's the violation of the assumptions evolutionarily baked into the hindbrain since we were still breathing with gills. In any case, it was maybe the coolest thing I have experienced ever.

This is one of a small and shrinking number of experiences that cannot even be approximated digitally. My attempts to capture the eerie midday twilight on my phone utterly failed. You really do have to have been there!

The standard line people say after this sort of event is something about feeling insignificant in the face of such cosmic grandeur; I didn't really feel any more insignificant than usual, for what it's worth. I did feel a strange connection to the people around me in that city park, and to the crickets and birds driven off-script and panicking, as a kind of brotherhood of Animalia. I saw a bird flap around in total confusion and thought, yeah, I feel that tbh. It me. Look at all of us, creatures with circadian rhythms and dependence on the sun to structure our lives! #PhotoreceptorGang, plants DNI.