Our eclipse expert checks in: Prepare for the sight of your life
I'll bet most of you have been seriously schooled on eclipses in recent weeks, but here are a few things that might further your eclipse education:
• Eclipses (both solar and lunar) occur in cycles, where similar eclipses repeat themselves in similarity every 18 years, 11.3 days. This is known as the Saros Cycle and was discovered by ancient astronomers, which then allowed them to fairly accurately predict future eclipses. The last Saros Cycle occurred on Aug. 11, 1999, in Europe (which I observed from Salzburg, Austria).
• At least two solar eclipses are seen from Earth every year, but there can be more. There doesn't have to be a lunar eclipse, although we do frequently have at least one per year. There can be a total of seven eclipses (solar + lunar) in one year, although this is quite rare.
• Monday's eclipse marks the first time that totality is restricted to the United States since we became a nation. Usually, the path of totality falls over several countries.
• The last time totality occurred over U.S. soil was in 1991, when the moon's umbra crossed over the Big Island of Hawaii (I saw that one from Mexico); the last time the continental U.S. saw totality was in February 1979, when the Northwest experienced it through mostly cloudy skies. That's a 38-year drought between total eclipses.
• The sun is always dangerous to observe without safety precautions, but during the brief period of totality, it is perfectly safe to observe with one's own eyes, since at that point, the sun is completely blocked by the moon. But as the first hint of sunlight reappears from behind the lunar limb, you must apply all safety measures again to protect your eyes.
Things I learned
• Don't take anything for granted, as I did when I thought many science teachers would already have known a total eclipse was coming to the U.S. in 2017. It seemed to be the best-kept secret in education and science circles!
The U.S. is really, really big. I have visited more than half our states (including nine where totality will occur), and it's taken me a long time to get to every place on my list. Of course, I've ventured off the beaten path to visit schools, organizations and natural wonders during this time as well. By the way, it really is a Grand Canyon!
• Many school districts are still living in the dark ages when it comes to eclipse awareness. I've had to persuade far too many administrations to allow their teachers and students to observe this eclipse from where they should: outdoors. I only hope every school district lets their children see this most wonderful celestial event live, and not indoors on a computer screen (I thought our country was immersed in an age of new science standards? You'd never know it in some places).
• Kids are braver and more eager than some adults when it comes to chasing down totality. A far-too-large number of adults -- including many science teachers! -- have no desire to travel to the path of totality (even when I've explained that I've traveled to four continents to see four totalities, at great time and expense). Yet, almost all the kids I've talked with would love to be taken to the path of totality. C'mon, teachers and parents: Do it!
• Solar glasses go a long way to getting schools onboard with this eclipse. They show administrators and teachers that, yes, kids can view the sun safely, and they motivate the students to want to learn more about our closest star, and how this little orange disc they view through their glasses gives us here on Earth everything we have.
On Eclipse Day
As a national NASA and American Astronomical Society Eclipse Education facilitator, I will be very busy on Eclipse Weekend in Carbondale. For example:
• I'll be assisting activities director Bob Baer with planetarium shows, hosting educational workshops for teachers, and, of course, working with students to prepare them properly for the sight of their lives on Monday.
• I will be working with Time.com and Time For Kids, with a program called Get Ready for the Great American Eclipse.
• I'm livestreaming on Facebook, providing observing tips, historical facts, interviews and live views of my surroundings, including, of course, totality on Monday afternoon.
• I'll also be working with my NASA and AAS colleagues, as they instruct and demonstrate their "eclipse expertise" with the assembled crowds.
• After totality (cloudy or not) I plan on celebrating at a local winery and finally taking in everything we've all just experienced. I head back to the classroom that very week!
From the suburbs
• I suggest heading to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago for a full day's worth of eclipse activities and workshops, including solar observation.
• Construct a solar viewer from a shipping tube, which will allow you to observe the sun safely, since you should not look directly at it.
• You can also stand under a tree to observe the many crescents that the openings in the tree's leaves make, as they project little images of the eclipse onto anything below, including your white shirt.
• Crosshatch your fingers to make your own "pinholes" to project eclipse crescents onto a white piece of paper, or use a pasta colander to get the same effect, but with many more crescents.
• I hope all schools will be holding eclipse events, with their science teachers and/or local experts facilitating the events. As I have been saying in my travels around the U.S. for the past two years: "No Child Left Inside!"
In southern Illinois
• If you don't already have accommodations, plan on sleeping in your car or in a tent. Most hotel/motel rooms are long gone, and the ones that are left are going for astronomical (as it were!) rates. Or simply drive down for the day, but be prepared for more traffic than the area has seen in decades, possibly ever.
• Attend the festivities at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which range from planetarium shows and solar observing to live music and sampling the local cuisine.
• Head to Giant City State Park where there will also be beautiful spaces to observe the eclipse from, and have dinner in the historic lodge.
• Visit neighboring Makanda, where Dave Dardis at The Rainmaker Art Studio will create one-of-a-kind eclipse souvenirs from metal and wood. Then head next door for an eclipse T-shirt and homemade ice cream.
• Find an isolated spot among the rolling hills and vistas, and commune with the environment and other animals.
And, then, watch nature's most spectacular event unfold above you.