Thanks to the many places where the Aug. 21 solar eclipse can be seen, and the amount of hype and media attention it has gotten, Lowell Observatory’s Jeff Hall said the event could very well be the most viewed eclipse in history.
“Even if people aren't in the path of totality, this is the kind of thing that gets everybody's attention and for those few minutes you kind of have a common purpose and a common interest and those kinds of things are good for us I think,” Hall said.
Hall saw a full eclipse in 1970 as a child growing up in Virginia. The eastern seaboard was on the edge of totality, he said.
“The sky got this deep color, it got cold and crickets started chirping...it was like night had fallen just like that,” Hall said. “It was a pretty surreal experience.”
Once a person gets within 10 or 15 minutes of totality, which is the point where the moon completely blocks the sun, “the darkness really falls like a hammer,” he said.
In her 1982 essay “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard described the vast difference between seeing a partial eclipse and a full one.
“A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane,” Dillard wrote.
The eclipse is also a unique opportunity to see with the naked eye the very faint outer layers of the sun’s atmosphere, Hall said. During totality, observers can see the whitish glow of the sun’s corona, and, if it’s visible, a pinkish color coming from the sun’s chromosphere. While faint, those regions of the sun’s atmosphere pack a punch. They are where violent events such as flares and coronal mass ejections occur, which can disrupt radio communications, knock out power grids or damage satellites.
“So apart from wanting to know how our star works, there is a very practical reason for wanting to understand better how this strange outer atmosphere of the sun evolves and how it behaves over time,” Hall said.