Cosmic Communion: A Total Solar Eclipse

Last summer's total solar eclipse provided a profound moment of celestial accord for millions of Americans.

Eclipse-watchers in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 21, 2017.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Like many of you, I long ago caught the total solar eclipse bug, and I’ve joined eclipse expeditions to other countries to stand in the shadow, in awe, with my fellow converts. In addition to the always sublime totality, this offers an excuse for going new places, following curves inscribed on the globe by a cosmic airbrush, and meeting other devotees along the way.

Totality has always been hard to explain to those who’ve never experienced a total solar eclipse, so last summer I was excited by the prospect of so many friends and relatives, not to mention vast multitudes of deserving strangers right here in my home country, finally seeing what all the fuss was about.

One thing I didn’t worry about was over-hyping it. In the run-up, one friend — a planetary scientist, no less — posted that she didn’t see why everyone was so worked up about a total eclipse. Naturally, when probed, she revealed that she’d never actually seen one. Or rather, I should say, never “been in” one. What the uninitiated don’t understand is that totality is not merely something interesting you observe at a distance, but something that happens all around you and inside you as well, transforming your inner and outer landscapes in surprising ways.

There’s the growing, creeping strangeness as totality approaches, when the light slowly thins, the colors become dreamlike, and the very air seems somehow transmuted. And then there’s the intense, slightly frightening exhilaration of totality — the brevity adding to the thrill and the sense of time dilation. It really does cleanse the doors of our perception and put us into an altered state.

We astronomy fans are used to feeling connected to distant phenomena. The site of an open star cluster seen through a telescope moves us. Not everyone gets this, but for anyone who witnesses totality, the feeling of a deep concord is unavoidable, and certain truths that we know in our heads suddenly become apparent in our guts.

Our human senses are stubbornly resistant to the Copernican insight that we live on a celestial body and that the sky is a vast landscape in which we dwell. During totality we detect the motions of Earth, Sun, and Moon, giving us a direct feel for the kinetic geometry of our universe. A veil of delusion lifts when, during daylight, we briefly see the stars right where they always are. I’m also always struck by how close the Moon seems.

All this adds up to a moment of profound communion with the cosmos and our fellow humans. Afterward, you feel newly bonded with whomever you’re with. It’s an experience we should never take for granted.

The fact that we can appreciate this arises from a great deal of cosmic evolution: the violent origin of our planet and unusually large moon, evolution of life, then animal life, then intelligent life and, in the last few centuries, a scientific culture that can study the cosmos. All of that culminates in this experience and allows us to appreciate it with both our heads and our hearts.

In my worldview, the scientific and the spiritual are melded in reverence for nature. There’s no time I’ve felt more in tune with both than during a total solar eclipse. A group of friends and I are already contemplating a trip to Chile or Argentina in July 2019.


This article originally appeared in print in Sky & Telescope's January 2018 issue.

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David Grinspoon

About David Grinspoon

David Grinspoon, Senior Scientist at Planetary Science Institute, is an astrobiologist who studies the possible conditions for life on other planets. He is also an award-winning science communicator and writer and writes the Cosmic Relief column for Sky & Telescope. His new book Earth In Human Hands was published in December 2016.
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