When I heard a local television station advertise its chief meteorologist as “The Official Meteorologist of the 2017 Solar Eclipse,” I knew for sure that eclipse fever has overtaken us in the Midlands.
And it’s a very fine fever — one that provides a platform for learning more about our universe, for developing a sense of shared wonder and excitement in our community and for offering an avenue to boost our local pride and economy — to show off our city to the projected hundreds of thousands who will travel to Columbia for the big event.
We all should be proud of our city. For months leading up to this month’s eclipse, city officials, economic development groups, educational and cultural institutions and various other entities have worked to create a framework of programs and events to educate us about this historic astronomical event.
The State Museum is offering a huge array of special programs; the Columbia Visitors Center has been offering special eclipse-viewing glasses, as have many businesses at no cost.
Several spots in the city have been designated for citizens to gather together to view the eclipse as it travels at a speed of more than 1,000 mph on its coast-to-coast trip from Oregon to South Carolina.
In short, Columbia has risen to the occasion with solid planning, widespread participation and a successful campaign to instill appreciation of the magic that will be center stage on Aug. 21.
The eclipse is arriving at an opportune time that allows us to focus on something marvelous, and remove us for a little while from the current maelstrom of events spinning around our nation. (In an interesting historical parallel, Edmond Halley of comet fame, studied the prediction of eclipses in the early 1700s and considered it especially important to be able to explain a coming eclipse to British citizens so they would not think the darkness was a perilous omen connected to their current king, George I, who had brought significant political divisions to the country.)
We know the basic science of eclipses, but the amazing lore surrounding them is worth appreciating. A total solar eclipse in 1919 provided the proof for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, making him a famous man. Thomas Edison used a total eclipse to test his tasimeter to measure infrared rays, which contributed eventually to his invention of the light bulb.
Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer, traveled with her Vassar students out West for the 1878 total solar eclipse and gave her students some sage advice: “You will see nature as you never saw it before — it will neither be day nor night — open your senses to all the revelations … let your eyes take note of the colors of Earth and Sky.” Not bad advice for us as we experience the 2017 eclipse.
Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Homer mention eclipses in several works. America’s own James Fennimore Cooper upon witnessing a total eclipse said, “Never have I beheld a spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man.”
Mark Twain, too, was captivated by his first eclipse. He wrote, “I waited two or three moments: then looked up … as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning. The life went boiling through my veins. I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk; my heart beat higher and higher.”
Now, in the summer of 2017, with the opportunity to enjoy the wonder of the coming eclipse, I feel an opportunity for real enlightenment.
Fifty summers ago, I was 17 during what was christened the Summer of Love by cultural commentators describing the music, art and beginnings of civil disobedience among American youth. I discovered Janis Joplin and read socio-political writing for the first time. I thought that I was receiving intellectual enlightenment for sure.
Now, in the summer of 2017, with the opportunity to enjoy the wonder of the coming eclipse, I feel an opportunity for real enlightenment. Maybe it’s because I am older now, but I look forward not to an academic or cultural experience but to one of pure amazement.
Walt Whitman once commented in a poem about attending an astronomy lecture and how he tired of hearing numbers and calculations discussed. He got up, went outside and “In the mystical moist night-air …/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” That’s the type of awe I hope we all feel on Aug. 21.
Ms. Beasley is a Columbia educator; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org..
Two great books on eclipses
“In the Shadow of the Moon,” by Anthony Aveni (Yale University Press)
“American Eclipse,” by David Baron (Liveright Press)
Available locally at the State Museum and Barnes and Noble