Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A review of the solar eclipse

On Monday, I, along with several million other people, decided to view the Great American Eclipse. Since I presently live in Urbana, IL, that meant getting in my car and driving down I-57 towards Carbondale. This route is also what people from Chicago or Milwaukee would have taken, which means traffic was heavy. I ended up leaving around 5:45 AM, which puts me around the last clutch of people leaving.

Our original destination was Goreville, IL (specifically, Ferne Clyffe State Park), but some people who arrived earlier got dissatisfied with the predicted cloudy forecast, so we moved the destination out to Cerulean, KY, which meant I ended up arriving around 11:00 AM, not much time before the partial eclipse started.

Partial eclipses are neat, but they're very much a see-them-once affair. When the moon first entered the sun, you get a flurry of activity as everyone puts on the glasses, sees it, and then retreats back into the shade (it was 90°F, not at all comfortable in the sun). Then the temperature starts to drop—is that the eclipse, or this breeze that started up? As more and more gets covered, then it starts to dim: I had the impression that a cloud had just passed in front of the sun, and I wanted to turn and look at that non-existent cloud. And as the sun really gets covered, then trees start acting as pinhole cameras and the shadows take on a distinctive scalloped pattern.

A total eclipse though? Completely different. The immediate reaction of everyone in the group was to start planning to see the 2024 eclipse. For those of us who spent 10, 15, 20 hours trying to see 2-3 minutes of glory, the sentiment was not only that it was time well spent, but that it was worth doing again. If you missed the 2017 eclipse and are able to see the 2024 eclipse, I urge you to do so. Words and pictures simply do not do it justice.

What is the eclipse like? In the last seconds of partiality, everyone has their eyes, eclipse glasses on of course, staring at the sun. The thin crescent looks first like a side picture of an eyeball. As the time ticks by, the tendrils of orange slowly diminish until nothing can be seen—totality. Cries come out that it's safe to take the glasses off, but everyone is ripping them off anyways. Out come the camera phones, trying to capture that captivating image. That not-quite-perfect disk of black, floating in a sea of bright white wisps of the corona, not so much a circle as a stretched oval. For those who were quick enough, the Baily's beads can be seen. The photos, of course, are crap: the corona is still bright enough to blot out the dark disk of the moon.

Then, our attention is drawn away from the sun. It's cold. It's suddenly cold; the last moment of totality makes a huge difference. Probably something like 20°F off the normal high in that moment? Of course, it's dark. Not midnight, all-you-see-are-stars dark; it's more like a dusk dark. But unlike normal dusk, you can see the fringes of daylight in all directions. You can see some stars (or maybe that's just Venus; astronomy is not my strong suit), and of course a few planes are in the sky. One of them is just a moving, blinking light in the distance; another (chasing the eclipse?) is clearly visible with its contrail. And the silence. You don't notice the usual cacophony of sounds most of the time, but when everyone shushes for a moment, you hear the deafening silence of insects, of birds, of everything.

Naturally, we all point back to the total eclipse and stare at it for most of the short time. Everything else is just a distraction, after all. How long do we have? A minute. Still more time for staring. A running commentary on everything I've mentioned, all while that neck is craned skyward and away from the people you're talking to. When is it no longer safe to keep looking? Is it still safe—no orange in the eclipse glasses, should still be fine. How long do we need to look at the sun to damage our eyes? Have we done that already? Are the glasses themselves safe? As the moon moves off the sun, hold that stare until that last possible moment, catch the return of the Baily's beads. A bright spark of sun, the photosphere is made visible again, and then clamp the eyes shut as hard as possible while you fumble the glasses back on to confirm that orange is once again visible.

Finally, the rush out of town. There's a reason why everyone leaves after totality is over. Partial eclipses really aren't worth seeing twice, and we just saw one not five minutes ago. It's just the same thing in reverse. (And it's nice to get back in the car before the temperature gets warm again; my dark grey car was quite cool to the touch despite sitting in the sun for 2½ hours). Forget trying to beat the traffic; you've got a 5-hour drive ahead of you anyways, and the traffic is going to keep pouring onto the roads over the next several hours anyways (10 hours later, as I write this, the traffic is still bad on the eclipse exit routes). If you want to avoid it, you have to plan your route away from it instead.

I ended up using this route to get back, taking 5 hours 41 minutes and 51 seconds including a refueling stop and a bathroom break. So I don't know how bad I-57 was (I did hear there was a crash on I-57 pretty much just before I got on the road, but I didn't know that at the time), although I did see that I-69 was completely stopped when I crossed it. There were small slowdowns on the major Illinois state roads every time there was a stop sign that could have been mitigated by sitting police cars at those intersections and effectively temporarily signalizing them, but other than that, my trip home was free-flowing at speed limit the entire route.

Some things I've learned:

  • It's useful to have a GPS that doesn't require cellphone coverage to figure out your route.
  • It's useful to have paper maps to help plan a trip that's taking you well off the beaten path.
  • It's even more useful to have paper maps of the states you're in when doing that.
  • The Ohio River is much prettier near Cairo, IL than it is near Wheeling, WV.
  • The Tennessee River dam is also pretty.
  • Driving directions need to make the "I'm trying to avoid anything that smells like a freeway because it's going to be completely packed and impassable" mode easier to access.
  • Passing a car by crossing the broken yellow median will never not be scary.
  • Being passed by a car crossing the broken yellow median is still scary.
  • Driving on obscure Kentucky state roads while you're playing music is oddly peaceful and relaxing.
  • The best test for road hypnosis is seeing how you can drive a long, straight, flat, featureless road. You have not seen a long, straight, flat, featureless road until you've driven something like an obscure Illinois county road where the "long, straight" bit means "20 miles without even a hint of a curve" and the "featureless" means "you don't even see a house, shed, barn, or grain elevator to break up corn and soy fields." Interstates break up the straight bit a lot, and state highways tend to have lots of houses and small settlements on them that break up endless farm fields.
  • Police direction may not permit you to make your intended route work.

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