Why I Can’t Wait for the Sun to Go Dark

In 1991, I went to Teotihuacán, Mexico, to watch a total solar eclipse from the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. Alas, thick clouds moved in during the morning. At the time of totality, it just got really dark. I didn’t see a hole in the sky surrounded by a shimmering corona or any other eclipse phenomena: Baily’s beads, the diamond ring. I was crushed.

This year, I’m planning to go to Plattsburgh, N.Y., near the Canadian border, to watch the April 8 eclipse from a city beach on the western shore of Lake Champlain. If the clouds come in again … I don’t even want to think about it.

Astronomy is unlike economics in that astronomers can tell us with great accuracy what will happen in the heavens not just weeks from now, but hundreds of years from now. Eclipse-watching, on the other hand, is very much like economics in that it’s vulnerable to all kinds of uncontrollable effects. Like clouds. And traffic jams. And exorbitant rates or no vacancies in hotels and motels in the path of the eclipse, lending a new meaning to the term “blackout period.”

When the moon fully blocks the sun, the sky darkens, the temperature falls, birds roost for the night, and some stars pop out. “People laugh, cry, stare dumbfounded, jump up and down,” Peter Tyson, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine, wrote in a special issue this year. “The hair on the back of your neck rises, and goose bumps cover your arms,” Kate Russo, who says she has witnessed 13 solar eclipses on six continents, wrote in the same issue.

I’m hoping for some of that craziness next month in Plattsburgh. In the meantime I’ve been thinking about eclipses in a more mechanical way.

One counterintuitive aspect of an eclipse is that the shadow cast by the moon starts in the west and travels east, even though the moon itself crosses the sky in the opposite direction, from east to west. This eclipse, for example, will travel northeast from Mexico through the United States to Canada. (Note: not “is likely to,” but “will.” That’s astronomy!)

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