Image courtesy to author.
Carnegie Mellon University

Commentary: A celestial dance, a nation united in wonder

In cities, towns and remote camping grounds across the nation, they gathered.

Cars filed into place in the grassy parking lot while the sky was still navy blue and the stars shone in their full brilliance in whites and slight reds. Headlights made rounds in the parking lot with half-asleep passengers as they parked into their directed places, guided by staff waving red light sticks.

As dawn broke the sky with colorful ribbons, the people started waking up with the land and earth. Cars tumbled out with members of all generations, from elderly grandparents to young children. There was an aura of anticipation, palpable in the air.

They were all there to witness a celestial sun-moon dance that would cross paths with both American coasts for the first time in decades: it was what has been dubbed the “Great American solar eclipse,” and millions of visitors descended on the path of totality to watch one of nature’s most spectacular shows, and millions more watched from their homes that were in the path of the partial eclipse.

They filled seats in the large outdoor amphitheater booked specially for the watch party for 8,500. They looked through eclipse glasses and tested out cameras. Media trucks with livestreaming equipment camped out nearby. There were scientific demonstrations and musical performances on drums. Similar gatherings played out across the nation.

The solar filters turned the glare of the sun into a mellow orange ball and darkened everything else– the clear blue sky, the crowds, the stage. Soon, there was the tiniest shadow encroaching on the tangent of the circle of the sun– first contact. It became increasingly obvious that the eclipse was happening as the moon slowly took a bite out of the solar disk. It was a beautiful sight of astronomical proportions to behold, and the positive energy of the moment was simply impossible to capture on camera.

It was stunning to see the sun turn into a sliver of a crescent, and to witness the sky turn progressively darker, the sun’s light progressively weaker, and the atmosphere progressively cooler in the middle of the day.

Finally, the moon was just blocking the sun so that the sun simply seemed like a particularly bright small spot of light in the sky– just another star in the cosmos. Then, the diamond ring and totality came in an instant, almost before we could react. But when the crowd did react it was loud.

The whoops and cheers conveyed the beauty of the moment that was nearly impossible to describe in words. The dark moon showed a wide aura surrounding the sun that was normally invisible to the naked eye: the corona, the hottest layer of the solar atmosphere at a few million degrees. It is almost unimaginably hot but because of the extremely low density it is also quite literally freezing.

The sky was the color of nightfall, but the light was almost eerie, unlike that of a normal dusk. Stars and planets shone in the middle of the morning. You could even see solar flares with your naked eyes without being outshone by the sun’s intensity.

The under-two-minutes of darkness was unlike anything I’d ever seen, only lighted by the stars and the white-hot corona and perhaps the solar flares peeking from behind the moon’s shadow. Getting to see the solar eclipse– despite having to wake up at 2 A.M.– was the most beautiful thing that has happened to me.

And in a time when the news is often dreary, filled with everything that divides people into all their different ideologies, the eclipse was a rare uniting moment that gave us hope. We are all drops in one big ocean. We are the grains of sand tumbling together on Oregon’s famous beaches.

Despite all our differences that we have constantly argued over for millennia, our common humanity was reinforced by our eyes, locked in the direction of the celestial sun-moon dance, mouths agape in smiles and gasps of wonder. The spectacularity of this astronomical show served as a reminder that we share the blue marble of planet Earth as our home, hurtling through the solar system at incredible speeds, shielding us from hostile radiation and most flying debris that would stray into Earth’s orbit. The universe is more magnificent and more powerful than any of us could ever fathom, and a solar eclipse is just one of those examples.

Thousands and thousands of cameras snapped to record this moment for eternity. As the photos and memories live in our collective memory, besides the momentary glow of the corona, there was also the glow of hope– a reminder of how powerful a force for good we can all be, if only we could be willing to push for positive change.