Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Lost Earth

In a state of complete disbelief and awe

There are things that are always with you….things that are so familiar, routine, or predictable, that they are fundamentally taken for granted. Things that just “ARE”. You just know that there are large oceans on earth and if you go to a shore somewhere….you’ll see one of them. You just know that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening. There are known rules and patterns about things like this that thousands of scientists and curious people have figured out and written down over many millenia. You just know that the glowing thing in the sky at night is the moon, and that this moon goes through various cycles. You know that there are dark splotches on it…and probably even know that those splotches are valleys of darker rock. Even though we know things like this, I feel like we never truly contemplate, or CAN contemplate, just how ridiculous it is. We are literally sitting on a ball of rock that orbits a random star in a vast universe (I know, put the mushrooms down John….)

Trying to verbalize a supernatural experience actually happening in real life is incredibly difficult.  You see this all the time on TV and in movies and perhaps that’s why it has become so watered down. Think back to maybe when you were a small child and secretly stayed up late to watch that scary movie you weren’t supposed to.  You know the one….the one that was particularly creepy because of how unnatural it was. For me, that movie was “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. I remember being just young and naive enough to think that a supernatural entity was now going to invade my dreams, and that it was actually possible for this to happen. I didn’t fully understand the concept of fiction enough to know that this was “fake”.  So, if it were to actually have happened, and an evil entity haunted my dreams, I’d sort of not be that surprised by it.

With that said though, if it were to happen TODAY, now that I’ve had 40-years’ worth of normal dreams, and fully understand fiction, and what’s “real” and what’s “not real”…it would shake the very foundation of my existence. Dreams just work a certain way, a way that we’ve all come to know, understand, and take for granted. If tomorrow, that somehow changed, it would be a truly supernatural and unsettling experience.

Now, try to imagine if you drove to a beach along the Atlantic ocean. Let’s say you’ve visited this beach for years and have come to know it. Now add to that all of the knowledge you’ve acquired through the years and science you’ve learned.  Now imagine as you’re tossing small rocks out into the Ocean, suddenly, all of the water just instantly disappears. What would you think? I mean it’s not possible right. It absolutely cannot happen. How could all of the water just disappear? Either physics is wrong, the hand of a real God is somehow messing with us, aliens are screwing with us, or simply that something about nature and our universe acted in a way that we fundamentally just can’t understand.

Similarly...we talk about aliens all the time. There are hundreds of movies about aliens, and even supposed real abductions. But, imagine if an ACTUAL ship were to arrive tomorrow. What do you think you would feel? Gene Roddenberry seemed to think that something like that happening would be so profound, that all of the peoples of the world would immediately come to realize the triviality of their bickering and conflicts, and just how small we all are in the grand scheme of the cosmos. A true alien visitation would unite our planet in a way no other event could.

Remember that scene in the "War of the Worlds" remake (2008), where Tom Cruises’s character sees the tripod emerge from the ground for the first time and realizes that there is actually a real and tangible alien presence on Earth? You can see that moment of existential crisis occurring within him.

Or how about that ridiculously unsettling and eerie scene in the movie "Signs"(2002) when Joaquin Phoenix's character is watching the news story about the kid's birthday party and he is jolted back in disbelief as the alien creature walks past the view of the camera. He reacts viscerally to something that seemingly cannot be possible and defies all logic and currently held beliefs.

This cannot be real.......(from "War of the Worlds", 2008)

The unnatural alien revealing itself in "Signs" (2002)

Now…think about what you know and have come to take for granted about your days and years on Earth. Think about all of those mornings you get up with the Sun, and go to bed with the Moon. Think about the seasons and the years (and even those pesky leap years). Think about smiling when you go to work and proudly tell someone…”Hey, today is the first day of Autumn!”, because you were reminded of that fact while listening to NPR on your drive in.

Now…close your eyes and imagine standing out in a field on a warm Summer day. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a grassy field near some tall corn stalks maybe. The noon-day sun is hot overhead and the shadows being cast are short. You can almost feel it right?  It’s hot, humid, and starting to get a bit uncomfortable. Maybe you start eyeing around for some shade. That darn sun that you’ve seen so many times since you can remember is just sizzling. That sun that you maybe even learned at one point in a class somewhere, originally formed over 4.5 billion years ago as gases compressed together due to gravitational forces. That sun that you just know is always there, and will always be there, long after we’re all gone.

Now imagine that you look up at that mid-day sun, and instantly, it just goes black….*poof*

What would you think?
What would you feel?

Even with the knowledge that total eclipses happen, and even with the countless images and videos available depicting eclipses that you've probably seen…just try to actually imagine what you’d feel if you looked up at the REAL sun, in the REAL sky, and it simply disappeared instantly.

I can tell you. It’s really, damn, unsettling.

It just doesn’t happen in real life right? It might happen in movies, or in pictures…but the sun can’t just disappear. So when it actually does, and you see it happen, all I can say is that it fundamentally crushes your sense of understanding and you truly experience what I can only describe as a pure sense of awe, and a profound sense of existential uncertainty. It’s as though aliens have appeared alongside that unnatural monster from that scary movie you saw as a kid, all while performing real magic spells and thereby turning your entire concept of reality upside down.

It is nearly impossible to suspend your disbelief while witnessing the moment the sun goes dark during a total eclipse. It's an eerie still, almost as though the Earth has somehow become lost. I suppose Kurt Vonnegut might describe it as the Earth becoming "unstuck". The instinctive/primitive part of your brain simply doesn't know what to do with the information it is receiving. Birds go quiet, bats come out, crickets begin chirping. Mercury, Venus, and a few bright stars become visible in the sky. Temperatures notably drop, and a faint sunset glow appears on all horizons. Nature just divided by zero.....

You try to convince yourself that you are having an “episode” or hallucination. It simply CANNOT be real. But then after about 30 seconds, a feeling comes over you that just cannot be described in words. It's not that it is a "religious" or "spiritual" or "hippie" feeling…I simply lack the vocabulary to properly express it in words. This feeling is the actual realization that what you thought you knew and took for granted about something so certain in nature as the behavior of the sun…is actually wrong. The feeling is the overwhelming realization that the experience IS real, and that something seemingly supernatural is really, and actually happening.

For the next two minutes, you just stare at this new and exotic experience of nature like nothing you’ve ever witnessed before. You are profoundly moved and affected, all the way through to your foundation; to your very core. In those short moments, entire conversations go on within your mind for what seem like hours. Questions about our existence in the universe, how insignificant we all are, and how magical and special life really is. During the 2 minutes and 40 seconds of eclipse totality, I caught myself uttering only one sentence aloud…,

“…we are so small”

Watching the sun go out...



Looking back....

I have known about the 2017 eclipse since I was in 5th grade...over 30 years ago. Later, in 1994, I witnessed a highly touted annular eclipse just weeks before graduating high school as the path went right over my hometown in upstate New York (almost the same exact path the 2024 eclipse will take). 
Our entire school emptied after lunch and we all stood outside to watch. Back then we were told you could disassemble a 3.5" floppy disk and use the disk itself as an eye guard to look through. Definitely not ISO certified, but nevertheless, we used them for viewing. I can still remember as the sun turned into a perfect ring...still to brilliant to look at with the naked eye though. It was jaw dropping, but honestly left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. I knew positively from that point that I would do whatever I had to 23 years later to witness and experience the true totality of a total (not-annular) eclipse.

1994 Annular Eclipse Path

1994 Annular Eclipse showing my hometown

About a year ago I started making plans in earnest for this year's eclipse. I started looking at feasible places to set up as a "base camp". I knew the general plan would be to fly to a big city along the totality line, rent a car, and then plan to drive to the highest atmospheric pressure (read: clearest sky) place along the totality line on eclipse morning. Sometime around January, I finally started looking at flight costs and settled on St. Louis. Ideally, we wanted to fly to someplace like Wyoming, but all of the flights there were just so expensive. We figured with St. Louis, we'd at least have the ability to drive on interstates in either direction. Plus, the St. Louis area (Carbondale, IL to be specific) was the part of the eclipse path that would offer the longest totality duration along the path (~ 2 mins 41 secs). We booked flights, a rental car, and a room for 3 nights in St. Louis. All we had to do now was wait. After 30+ years, it was finally going to happen. I bought a few pairs of fancy viewing glasses on line (knowing they'd all sell out later), and stored them in a safe place. I was ready and eager.

Fast forward to this past Saturday morning. The plan was for me and C to fly to St. Louis and meet her sister L there (she was flying out of Boston as well, but on Sunday). But then...things got interesting.

We arrived at the airport to find our flights were delayed over an hour. A quick glance had us realize that our connection in Philadelphia was likely not going to happen. We tried to rebook, but due to bad weather on Friday night and all of the additional eclipse travelers...there was no way to get us to St. Louis by Sunday.  So, instead, we opted to fly to Philadelphia on our delayed flight, and try to make our connection. It would be incredibly close, but we didn't have any checked bags so decided to go for it. Worse case scenario, we figured we could change our car reservation to Philly, and just drive the 12+ hours from there. As we sat on the plane I did the math and told C, my guess was that we had to be wheels up by 4:25 PM to make our connection. Our wheels went up at exactly 4:30 PM. I was starting to doubt we'd make it.  

As we neared Philly, it was looking like it might be possible, but would be incredibly close. We determined our gates, noted the distance we'd have to run, and thankfully were in the first row of the plane. As we waited for the door to of the plane to open I noted that our connection was supposed to take off in 15 minutes and they usually close the gate 10 minutes before. It wasn't looking good.

The door opened 2 minutes later and the two of us sprinted as fast as we could from the B concourse over to the C concourse. I charged up to the counter panting heavily and told the attendant we were there to board.  Her response, "I'm sorry...they closed the gate 4 minutes ago. You'll have to see customer service". I guess I was spot on with the 4:25 wheels up prediction.  Damn.

I begged and pleaded with her, but she would not budge. We were screwed.

We stood in line at customer service for what seemed like an hour while two different attendants searched dozens of cities to try to get us close to St. Louis.  Nothing was open. So many people were flying to the eclipse that no seats were available. Finally, one attendant told us she could get us to Chicago (400 miles from St. Louis), but that we'd be on stand-by and there was no guarantee we'd get on. We decided to try and then if not, we'd just rent a car from Philly and drive.

As the plane began boarding we waited patiently to see what would happen. We had moved up to spots 1 and 2 on the list and somehow I couldn't help but laugh at how much it reminded me of my Western States ordeal. Towards the end of boarding they finally called us up and we were able to get on the plane. While waiting to leave, I managed to change my scheduled rental car reservation in St. Louis to a one-way rental leaving from Chicago instead and we'd have a car waiting for us upon arrival. The bad news was that we wouldn't get in to Chicago until about 10 pm, and St. Louis about 4:00 am. We debated just getting a room in Chicago, but we had reservations to go up the Gateway Arch at noon and didn't want to miss that either.  So...when our plane landed, we picked up our car (a super spiffy Volvo - which was pretty awesome), and started driving the 400 miles to St. Louis. For any normal occasion, driving 400 miles through the middle of the night after flying 2 legs on a plane would seem ridiculous. But...I was as giddy as can be. We'd make it to the totality path and now just had to worry about weather! Early forecasts were indicating that we'd have to head a bit South and East to avoid the potential of clouds. We had originally planned to view the eclipse from a small town about 30 minutes South of St. Louis called De Soto...but the forecast there wasn't looking so hot.

We arrived in St. Louis just after 4:00 am, got our room (which they almost gave away to someone else) and promptly slept for a whole 4 hours.

When we woke, we made our way downtown to check out the Gateway Arch and some good food, before picking up L from the airport.

Looking up at the Arch

Elevator Pod that takes you up the Arch. It feels like an escape pod

Tight fit in the elevator pods

At the top!

View out the window

The view down below

Riverboat view of the Arch

We left the Arch after a successful tour, and picked L up from the airport. We headed to the hotel and started making plans for the next morning. What food would we bring, where would we head, and what our general "game plan" would be. After much debate, we tentatively planned to head towards Clarksville, TN. The forecast was making it look like the farther East and South we could get along the path from St. Louis, the better our clear sky probability would be. would all depend on traffic and updated final weather report in the morning. We plugged several cities into our weather apps that were along the totality path, and made sure that our driving route would never leave the actual path. This way, even in an absolute pinch, we could simply pull over to the side of the road and watch from there.

We woke at 5:00 am, checked the updated weather, and the forecast was the same: head East to be safe. So...we started driving East-South-East. A glance at the cities along the route revealed that Hopkinsville, KY was showing clear all afternoon. Hopkinsville was closer than Clarksville, so we decided once on the road that this would be what we aimed for pending any updated forecast of course. Worst case we'd end up driving all the way towards Nashville...but that meant several hundred miles all in one day. Hopkinsville was about 240 miles one-way, which meant we'd be putting in almost 500 miles in a single day. Thats a lot of time on highways....highways that might be incredibly backed up both before AND after the eclipse.

Our drive to Hopkinsville went perfectly and we ran into no serious traffic. We drove through the small town of Carbondale, IL (touted as the eclipse headquarters) and saw quite a large group of people setting up downtown...but no real traffic to maneuver through. As we approached Hopkinsville, the skies got clearer and clearer, and we knew we'd be in for a good show. The temps were predicted to go above 90 though, so we knew we wanted to find a park of some kind that offered some shade. What we ended up finding was a nice open grassy spot across from a cemetery that worked perfectly. We set up under a nice shady tree, and had a large open area for viewing that was relatively free of any large crowds. There were maybe a dozen other people around, but we had the entire shady tree to ourselves. We set up by 10:30 am, made a quick run up to the corner store for ice waters and snacks, and then settled in for the show. I started some instrumentation to measure temperature, humidity, and shortwave insolation (a measure of light intensity)...and then the three of us waited. What was amazing was that the spot we chose for our viewing was only 637 meters away from the eclipse center-line (less than a 1/2 mile); meaning that the "umbral depth" of our viewing spot was 98.89%. We were also very close to the maximum totality duration part of the eclipse path. What this means in simple terms was that we'd get the longest and most obscured eclipse of just about anybody along the path. It would get darker for us, and stay that way longer...than for anyone else.

Our specific viewing location details
(2m 40sec totality)
(umbral depth 98.89%)

The full 2017 eclipse path map

What followed was a show like I could never have imagined. The eclipse began right before noon CDT (around 11:56) and for over 90 minutes we watched as the moon crept across the disk of the sun. While the eclipse was underway, we played around with various pinhole cameras and even used a colander to create multiple solar projections. It was fun and the three of us all geeked out on the science. As totality approached, the air became cooler, night bugs began chirping, and the overall atmosphere began to get somewhat still and eerie.  At exactly 1:24:41, the moon completely obscured the sun and the three of us experienced the most profoundly awe-inspiring thing we have ever witnessed.

Entire conversations went by in my head. I pondered the wonder of our cosmos, and realized how completely insignificant we all truly are. I stared in wonder hoping that it would last just a little bit longer. I eventually looked down at my watch after what seemed like an eternity and saw there was only about 20 seconds left and prepped my glasses.

...and then just like that, a bright diamond appeared on the opposite side of the sun and totality was over. I hugged C and we were both quite emotional.  It took a long time to re-center myself and actually begin to think rationally again. Eventually the three of us began to talk about the experience. We all agreed: It was life changing.

2024 cannot come soon enough. Incidentally, the 2024 eclipse (The next total eclipse to pass through the US), cuts right through my home town in upstate NY again. We've already begun discussing where we will go to see it as April in the northeast doesn't generally bode well for cloud cover. Southern Texas is looking to be the best candidate right now.

We've even already talked about possibly taking that long overdue trip to Chile in either 2019 or 2020 to witness the one of the two eclipses happening there. The 2019 eclipse passes near Santiago, but the 2020 eclipse will be more-centered on Chile. We'll have to see as they get closer, but it's not out of the question. I never would have thought I'd even be considering traveling to South America for an eclipse...but honestly now, I can't imagine not.

Sunrise on eclipse morning

Eclipse path from St. Louis down into Kentucky

Our exact viewing location in Hopkinsville, TN

Our viewing area (View #1)

View #1 zoomed in (View #2)

View #2 zoomed in (View #3)

View #3 zoomed in (View #4)

View #4 showing our exact shady tree in the field where we set up

Our shady tree

Our fun little camp set up

Playing with a pinhole colander setup

Enjoying the eclipse

Unboxing my instrumentation

Eclipse party!

Pinhole projections of the partial eclipse

More projections

Eclipse projections created by the tree leaves

A Pringles can pinhole projector


My expression for most of the day...

Having a little silly fun...

Eclipse Photo #1

Eclipse Photo #2

Eclipse Photo #3

Eclipse Photo #4

Eclipse Photo #5

Eclipse Photo #6

Eclipse Photo #7

Eclipse Photo #8 - Totality

Eclipse Photo #9

Eclipse Photo #10

Eclipse Photo #11

Eclipse Photo #12

Eclipse Photo #13

Eclipse Photo #14

Eclipse Photo #15

We eventually created a panorama of the eclipse by pasting all of our sun photos (taken with a simple point-click camera through the lens of our viewing glasses) and then using Photoshop to align, make color corrections, and arrange (click to see full size version).

The full eclipse panorama

Data recorded by my instrumentation

We stayed until the very end of the eclipse, watching the the moon track its way back across the sun until what was left was a the full solar disk.

On our long drive back to St. Louis, we made a small detour over to the Southernmost point of Illinois (Ft. Defiance) where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet (and where Lewis and Clark stopped) well as over to Taum Sauk mountain in Missouri, so that I could tag my 40th state high point. Thankfully, we hit no real serious traffic on our return and were finally back in our hotel room by about 10 pm with the entire adventure big one enormous success.

Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (Fort Defiance, IL)

Two mighty rivers meet at Illinois Southernmost (and lowest) point

River confluence

The trail up to Taum Sauk "summit"

Missouri's high point


GPS tag at the high point.

My 40 State Highpoints Pin!