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The Great American Eclipse: Thoughts and observations from the path of totality in Salem

OMSI's Director of Space Science Education Jim Todd stands in front of a live image of the partially eclipsed sun at the L.B. Day Amphitheatre in Salem, Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (Photo: Steve Benham/KATU.com)

It couldn’t have been a better day for a total solar eclipse.

The sun rose into a perfectly clear sky over the state fairgrounds Monday morning.

While on many days it is taken for granted, on this day the sun was the center of attention as millions of people donned protective solar eclipse glasses across the United States to gaze upon its visible surface, and to observe the moon slowly slide itself into place over it, punching a round, black hole in the sky.

Together, they experienced the Great American Eclipse as it swept across the nation, from Oregon to South Carolina.

Thousands of people staged themselves within the path of totality at the L.B. Day Amphitheatre at the state fairgrounds in Salem. They had gathered there for a total solar eclipse viewing party hosted by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

It was an event that gave a well-deserved nod to science and math, but also appreciated the awe of the spectacle. On hand to guide the crowd through each stage of the eclipse was Jim Todd, OMSI’s director of space science education. And the sounds of drums from Portland Taiko announced each phase of the eclipse: First contact, totality, last contact.

Also on hand was Jim Brau, a University of Oregon physicist, and Don Pettit, a NASA astronaut from Silverton, Oregon. Brau provided the science behind the eclipse while Pettit spoke about the experience of seeing solar eclipses from space.

Minutes before totality, a few isolated cheers erupted, but it was nothing compared to the shouts and the screams that exploded from the crowd when the “diamond ring effect” encircled the moon briefly before the sun blinked out and everyone stood in the full shadow of the moon. Darkness.

“Oh my God!” was the oft-heard response. In the distance, someone let off fireworks. Along the horizon, twilight came to the middle of the day. A few stars appeared. The planet Venus dominated almost directly overhead.

But it was the sun’s outer, thin atmosphere, the corona, that stole the show. It has been said and written many times that a photograph or a video clip does not capture the total effect. This was certainly borne out in the experience.

The corona, normally hidden from view by the blinding light of the rest of the sun, was rich with detail. It was not round, as imagined in the uninitiated mind’s eye. It was like a wispy ball of cotton stretched out thin and loosely twisted at certain points, tacked flat against a deep dark-blue sky, emanating a good distance from the blocked out sun. But at the same time, it was nothing like that. The sun’s corona has no comparison to any earthly object or experience.

Once again science was vindicated. This eclipse had been predicted many years in advance by people using laws and theories and mathematics born from the time of Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton in the 17th century. And it happened right on time. It was a testament to the ability of humans to understand the universe they live in.

A total solar eclipse may be described by many as a spiritual experience, but many scientists stop short of going that far.

“These kinds of wonderful coincidences and characteristics of nature and the universe put us in awe,” said Brau, the UO physicist. “So being in awe is a better way to describe it, I think, than a spiritual experience.”

In whatever way one experienced the eclipse, some final words from OMSI’s Todd.

“We’re hoping after today that now you have a better understanding and appreciation how magnificence -- the greatest show on earth just happened today.”

Total solar eclipses are rare events in the U.S. They can happen once every one to two years somewhere on Earth. The last one to cross Oregon was on Feb. 26, 1979. The next total solar eclipse to cross Oregon will be on June 25, 2169.


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