It's Not Dark Yet, But It's Getting There.

Jon Foro on July 19, 2017


Corona, Libya, 29 March 2006; photograph by Fred Espenak

It's been almost four decades since a total eclipse of the sun was seen in the mainland United States, when, for a few minutes on February 26, 1979, the Moon obscured the entirety of the Sun in a narrow swath of land crossing the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. As that day approached, my 11-year-old imagination churned with anticipation, excitement, and the fear of blinding myself, even as my fifth-grade class prepared by constructing eclipse viewers from shoeboxes and aluminum foil. In the end, February 26 turned out to be a typical winter day in Seattle: At the moment of totality, the overcast skies shifted undramatically from monochromatic gray to a darker monochromatic gray; in other words, a total bummer. Since life beyond the year 2000 was unimaginable - not to mention the ridiculous impossibility of 2017's eventual arrival - I buried my disappointment, adjusted my expectations, and moved on to the pressing demands of Battlestar Galactica, Real People, and Mork & Mindy.

Fortunately, I was wrong. On August 21, those standing within a 70-mile-wide band - this time starting in Oregon and arcing southeast across the continent to South Carolina - will witness one of nature's rarest and most gobsmacking events, weather permitting. But if you're not standing there now, you have some preparation to do, and quick. (If circumstances conspire, you have another chance in 2024. But after that, you're pushing your luck - the next total solar eclipse won't hit our shores until 2045.) Here is a short list of books and other necessary items to make the most of this extraordinary phenomenon.


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Totality by Mark Littmann and Fred Espenak
Updated with current information to provide the best viewing experiences specifically for the "Great American Eclipses" of 2017 and 2024, Totality includes photographs and illustrations with information on where to go, how to safely view the events, the science behind the phenomena, and how to record them - either through photographs or video. Littmann is an award-winning science writer, while Espernak is a widely respected eclipse photographer who also happens to manage NASA's eclipse website. (That's his image at the top of this page.) 

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Goggles with Spikes

Solar Eclipse Spectacles - Shade 14 with Black Spikes
Everyone knows that if you stare at the sun, you will damage your eyes. The consequences of looking at a solar eclipse with unprotected eyes are much worse: your eyeballs will explode in tiny fireballs inside of your skull. There are a couple of ways to protect yourself and the people around you. You can make a pinhole viewer, which projects a shadow of the eclipse against a piece of paper - the equivalent experience to watching a shadow-puppet presentation of The Empire Strikes Back. Or you can invest in a pair of eclipse glasses, which range from inexpensive paper-and-mylar frames (like the old 3-D movie glasses) to the stylishly sassy spiked goggles pictured here. YOUR DILIGENCE IS REQUIRED: Normal sunglasses won't do. Your eyewear should meet the  ISO 12312-2 standard for "direct observation of the sun, such as solar eclipse viewing." More information can be found at NASA's website on eyeglass safety.

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American Eclipse by David Baron
How about some historical context? American Eclipse examines the total solar eclipse of 1878, when scientists descended on the Rocky Mountains and the Wild West in a race to discover secrets of the universe exposed only during these rare celestial events. Among the aspirants: James Craig Watson, an asteroid-chaser hoping to discover Vulcan, a hypothetical planet hidden behind the sun; Maria Mitchell, a Vassar astronomer (along with her group of female students) determined to demonstrate that a woman's place is in the scientific community; and a young Thomas Edison out to prove that his substance matched his considerable showmanship.

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Blackstar by David Bowie
The Great American Eclipse of 2017 deserves a soundtrack. My advice: Find a viewing site as far from other humans as possible, climb the tallest mountain that your physical abilities allow, and listen to Bowie's final masterpiece at MAXIMUM VOLUME as the Moon overcomes the Sun, symbolically restoring order to a universe gone sideways. Bookend your ritual with Leonard Cohen's You Want It Darker and Soundgarden's " Black Hole Sun." You see what I'm doing here. Or you don't. Either way, the eclipse deserves a soundtrack. (Those who would suggest "Total Eclipse of the Heart" are welcome to spend August 21 in a karaoke bar, an altogether different sort of darkness.)

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Mask of the Sun by John Dvorak
Modern science allows us to predict the exact moments and paths of solar eclipses into the indefinite future, but before the mechanics were understood, these events prompted widespread awe, fear, and strange behavior. Dvorak's meticulously researched book covers the history of human reactions and interpretations from Homer to the Bible and beyond, including the Romans' fear of sex during eclipses and astrologers' occult-inspired predictions of a pope's demise. He doesn't skimp on the science, either; Mask of the Sun is a well rounded, entertaining, and authoritative survey.

See also: Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren.

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Solar Eclipse Road Trip by Science Across America
As noted above, the unfortunately narrow "path of totality" means that you're probably going to have to hit the road if you want the best bang for your eclipse-viewing buck. If you're over Slug Bug, I Spy, and "99 Bottles of Beer," keep the kids occupied with Solar Eclipse Road Trip, 50 pages of eclipse-centric puzzles, games, and science. Don't make me turn this car around.

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