Enjoying a partial eclipse
Last week a swath of the US experienced a total solar eclipse, something most people had never seen. We have pointed out that there is a vast difference in experience between totality and any other kind of celestial spectacle, so we were personally disappointed that (for reasons we need not go into here) none of us could travel to the path of totality. Instead, our astronomer and our tutoring consultant took one pair of eclipse glasses and a small telescope to the tutoring center where the latter works, to show the students what a partial eclipse looks like.
They hadn’t expected strong reactions. The sight of a non-round Sun, they thought, would only be interesting to people who routinely look at it, and always see it round. While the Moon covered over 80% of the Sun from our location, that’s not as much of a dimming as a dense cloud produces; it would still be daylight. They were prepared to explain why this notched Sun was unusual.
But from the outset there were gasps and cries of amazement. People, it seems, do know instinctively that the Sun should be round. Especially when it was mostly covered, showing only a crescent, it seemed to them very strange and wonderful. And our consultants had forgotten the impact of looking directly at something, however heavy the filtering: seeing something in person is just more powerful than viewing a picture on a screen.
The tutoring center is located in a suburban shopping mall, so not only were there students, but many passers-by stopped to see. There were lines for the eclipse glasses and the telescope for almost two hours, until a thunderstorm drove everyone inside. None of these people, of course, was able to see the total eclipse, though all had heard about it. All knew that they were in the path of a partial eclipse, but few had any idea of how to observe it. (Eclipse glasses have been unobtainable for weeks; our pair is leftover from a previous saros cycle.)
Our consultants concluded that they’d enjoyed this eclipse just about as much as if they’d made it to the path of totality. They’d been able to show people something that amazed and excited them, something they would never have seen otherwise. And once again they’d experienced the power of seeing something in person.