When day became night: The Great Solar Eclipse of 2017

— Photo by Richard J. Kinch

Sunlight streaming through a valley between two mountain peaks on the moon is the first light to show, creating this diamond-ring effect.

The viewing of a total solar eclipse is commonly described as “a religious experience.” It was perhaps fitting then that mine occurred on the grounds of a small Methodist church in the beautiful green hills near rural White House, Tennessee.

I was there at the invitation of Pastor Sam Brown and his wife, Debbie. Sam and I had attended graduate classes in geology years before at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Subsequently, while teaching high school science courses west of Nashville, Sam had become a minister in the Methodist Church, sometimes serving several different rural churches simultaneously — a duty not unknown to many clerics in these times.

Having never viewed a total solar eclipse, I had for at least a year been formulating plans to travel south to see it, since it would be nowhere near totality in upstate New York. I also considered combining it with a visit to Mammoth Cave, since the line of totality was only about 50 miles south of that National Park.  And when Sam invited me to an Eclipse Celebration he was hosting at his church, I accepted immediately.

The moments of totality were to begin at 1:26 Central Time, and having heard rumors that Interstate 65 was going to be overloaded with eclipse-viewers headed south from cities such as Louisville in Kentucky and Columbus and Cleveland in Ohio and other crowded areas of the upper Midwest, I had determined to get an early start from my motel near Mammoth Cave, intending to drive the 50 or so miles from Cave City to White House starting around 6 a.m.

But, much to my surprise, there was only light to moderate traffic even by 7 that morning. I therefore took a leisurely drive south, stopping for an enormous southern breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, and grits and strong coffee and still got to the church following Sam’s directions by 9:40, finding I was the first to arrive.

The venerable old church sits on the edge of farmed fields next to a 19th Century Masonic lodge and a small, lovingly kept cemetery with weathered headstones. The eclipse viewing site was to be the broad parking lot before the church in which members of Sam’s congregation could gather with the safety glasses he had specially ordered.

Beyond the parking lot and a little brook was a grove of tall, closely-spaced trees that sheltered a picnic pavilion and a children’s play area from the hot Tennessee sun. The sky was a brilliant blue and there were only a couple of tiny, wispy clouds visible: perfect weather for viewing an eclipse.

I parked myself on a swing and glided back and forth for a while, enjoying the cool shade, the air that smelled of freshly-cut grass, and the songs of the cicadas, all the while appreciating the ambience and the sense of something wonderful to come. Sam and Debbie arrived within the hour, having driven up from the Nashville area on I-65 and they also reported relatively light traffic.

Shortly a parade of other cars arrived and a number of folks from Sam’s congregation emerged — all of them bringing with them plates of sandwiches, bowls of appetizers and salads, and a multitude of desserts and cartons of soft drinks.

The eclipse viewing was going to be preceded by a down-home church supper — a slice of Americana along with the astronomical event to come.

It had been interesting to me over the couple of days before the eclipse to overhear the comments and questions from the crowds in the airport and in a couple of restaurants I had visited. A sampling:

“Now — is the sun going to come between the Earth and the moon?” (Impossible: The moon is going to come between the Earth and the sun, blocking its light.)

“So which is happening: Is the sun going to stand still behind the moon or does the Earth stop turning?”  (Not unless the Biblical figure of Joshua shows up!)

“If I am wearing the protective glasses, is it safe to look through a telescope at the sun?” (Good Lord, no!  The telescope would focus the sun’s rays and burn right through the protective glasses and the retina of your eye.)

“Some places are charging 10 dollars or more to park my car. Should I spend the money to get a better view of the eclipse?” (Charging to watch the eclipse was a horrendous rip-off. Anywhere you could see the sun was as good a place to park your car as anywhere else.)

A solar eclipse is a wonderful combination of astronomy and geology. Simply put: The moon is a huge ball of rock roughly 2,000 miles in diameter held in orbit around the Earth by gravity.

When we look at a full moon, the dark features that make up the “face” of “the man in the moon” — sometimes called “seas” — are giant solidified flows of the volcanic rock basalt. The bright, high hills and mountains of the moon are anorthosite — another igneous rock composed largely of plagioclase feldspar; much of the rock that makes up our Adirondacks is anorthosite.

Since the moon is a solid body, it casts a shadow in space that we cannot see from Earth most of the time because space is dark. But, on rare occasions, the moon’s orbit causes that shadow to fall on Earth’s surface — and we experience a solar eclipse. (A lunar eclipse occurs when Earth’s shadow falls on the moon; since Earth is four times the diameter of the moon, its shadow is larger and so lunar eclipses occur more frequently than solar eclipses.)

To complicate the situation: The moon’s orbit around Earth is not a perfect circle; it is an ellipse, meaning that sometimes it is slightly closer to Earth — a position called “perigee” — and sometimes it is slightly farther away in the position called “apogee.” Although it is very difficult to discern with the naked eye, at perigee the moon looks slightly larger when viewed from Earth and at apogee it looks slightly smaller.

By an almost incredible coincidence — defying odds that must be billions to one — from Earth, the sun, and moon appear to be almost exactly the same size, even though the sun is around 900,000 miles in diameter — a situation that occurs nowhere else in our solar system

However, if a solar eclipse should occur when the moon is at apogee, it is unable to completely blot out the sun, which then appears as a bright ring around the black silhouette of the moon. This is called an “annular eclipse” — from the Latin word for “ring.”

The Albany area experienced a dramatic annular eclipse in 1994. But, if the eclipse occurs when the moon is at perigee, it precisely if briefly blots out the sun’s disk. At such a time, all points that lie within the moon’s shadow experience what appears to be night — stars and all.

Then it is safe to look toward the sun without eye protection and viewers can see the hazy, glowing atmosphere surrounding our star called “the corona” — Latin for “crown.” But the whole thing is a brief spectacle, seldom lasting for more than a couple of minutes. The Earth rotates, the moon’s shadow slips along the planet’s surface, and the sun reappears in the sky in a sudden flash of light.

At our viewing spot at Pastor Sam’s church, the celestial show was to begin around 12:25 p.m. Central Time so, following the delicious lunch served by the parishioners, many of us headed out dutifully a few minutes after that time with our protective glasses in place and looked up at the sky.

The right side of the sun was no longer part of a circle: It looked as though a tiny, ebony-black, fingernail-shaped slice had been taken out of it. To anyone without protective glasses, of course, no change could be noticed because of the overpoweringly bright glare of the sun.

Over the next half-hour or so, the tiny slice expanded — now it appeared that some mythical beast had taken a huge bite out of the sun’s disk as nearly 50 percent of it disappeared behind the moon. And yet, to the unaided eye the (literally) blinding light from what was left of the sun still revealed nothing unusual.

It was only when there remained about 20 minutes to totality that it was obvious even to those with unprotected eyes that something strange was going on. For one thing, although the time was shortly after high noon and there was a brilliantly clear sky, it began to get cooler.

The temperature had been hovering in the mid-90s to that point and the air had been still: a typical, sweltering, late-August Tennessee afternoon. But, although there was no breeze, the air now had begun to feel cooler and more comfortable, the way it might have toward dusk.

But far more eerie was the light: Moment by moment, the amount of sunlight reaching the ground was fading, as if a massive cloud were passing in front of the sun. But there were no clouds anywhere near the sun: It was like being in a theater in which the lights are slowly dimming before the performance, but so slowly as to be barely noticeable.

It was at that moment that we came to understand the truth of the stories we have all heard about the terror that used to possess primitive peoples unaware of the cause of solar eclipses. The sun is the source of light, of growth, of life itself. To see its power diminish and to feel the coolness of night beginning to spread in mid-day, even among people in ancient cultures that could predict them, eclipses must have been traumatic.

As the moment of totality approached, some things not unexpected but still strange happened — birds that been happily chirping away in the surrounding trees fell silent and, on neighboring farms, roosters began to crow.

Now every one of the parishioners was outside, their protected gazes fixed upon the sky: And darkness fell like a gray blanket enveloping the landscape. The sun vanished behind the black disk of the moon in a few seconds and in a flash the corona blazed forth, enveloping the sun in its gaseous rays.

After a moment of utter silence the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the crowd became audible — but in awed whispers. Momentarily visible were a couple of stars and the planet Venus shimmering in the sky.

As an added treat, one of the satellites endlessly circling Earth and usually visible only near dusk or in the hour or two before or after sunrise or sunset appeared in the northern sky, moving south. The spectacle had an air of stupefying unreality, like a scene from a Steven Spielberg movie — the light show before the aliens arrive.

And, though it seemed to pass too quickly, as the sun began to reappear in a slim, brilliantly bright crescent from behind the blackness of the moon, we were treated to a rare spectacle: the “diamond ring” effect. There are mountains on the moon’s limb separated by deep valleys, and it is through these valleys that the emerging sunlight can first blaze toward Earth. The rays appear as a dazzling burst of light like a jewel on a golden ring before the whole spectacle dissolves in the surging glare.

And then it was over.

Within just a few minutes, the light levels began to rise along with the temperature. Once again, without protective glasses, the continuing passage of the moon from the sun’s disk was invisible.

Our crowd had seen something that the vast majority of the Earth’s inhabitants never have and perhaps never will see: a total solar eclipse. But for residents of New York State, there is a bright note in that fact: In April 2024, there will be another solar eclipse, and this time the line of totality will pass right through New York State.

It was, of course, interesting to consider the symbolic aspects of a solar eclipse. Shortly before the eclipse began, my friend Pastor Sam shared with me the essence of the sermon he had delivered to his congregation the day before.

A partial solar eclipse, he preached, was analogous to the condition of those people who let material things to some extent block their relationship with God; there is some darkness, but the light still shines through. But a total eclipse is comparable, he said, to the state of those who cut themselves off completely from the Almighty and give themselves over to possessions and pursuits and pleasure, ignoring all things spiritual. Nothing is left in life but darkness and cold.

Some might find that symbolism a bit too gloomy, but there is no doubt that such a momentous natural event lends itself to many interpretations. Perhaps one of the more interesting was presented to me in an essay that I have kept, written by one of my composition-class students some years ago in which students chose some abstract word and gave it concrete examples.

He chose the word “magic” and to illustrate it used such events as two close acquaintances in a chance meeting hundreds or thousands of miles from home; a kiss shared by an ideally-matched couple that sets off the electric smell of ozone;  and the smile of a newly-born infant just moments after its birth.

But one image near the close of his essay has stuck in my mind all these years: “Magic is the fact that the sun and the moon, so different in their natures, when seen from the Earth appear to be precisely the same size. Coincidence, perhaps. Or is that the signature of God?”

At the little country church in the beautiful hills of Tennessee on the afternoon of that magnificent demonstration of the movement of the celestial spheres, some might find it not very difficult to answer positively his rhetorical question.