A Solar Eclipse for Everybody
On the afternoon of August 21, there will be a total solar eclipse and it will be watched by tens of millions across the United States. Many will see it in all of its glory while standing on a long narrow band of land stretching from South Carolina to Oregon. We on Martha’s Vineyard only get a piece. We’ll experience a partial solar eclipse. For us our Island will be lit by a sun only partially obscured by the moon.
The first order of business that goes with anyone watching an eclipse, is that we all need to be mindful there is danger for those looking directly at the sun. A viewer can suffer immediate and permanent eye damage. Looking directly at the sun is harmful, even with a make-shift filter. It is a cause of blindness.
There are only a few ways to safely observe the sun and all solar eclipses.
The easiest is to use projection. You can project the image of the sun on a piece of white paper. Put a pinhole in a sheet of cardboard and try and project the image of the sun onto a shaded white paper. If that white piece of paper is in a darkly shaded area, you’ll get a clear small image of the sun. This by far is the safest and most popular measure.
Anything like fabricating filters and engaging in the use of a camera or a telescope of any size is just too scary to be worth mentioning here. Unless you are working on good advice, don’t do it.
A total solar eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event and for most will be memorable. There are amateur and professional astronomers who travel the world to watch a solar eclipse, one after another. Being a fan of solar eclipses, they must enjoy one of the most expensive hobbies. These spirited enthusiasts go from continent to continent at any time during the year, spring, summer, fall and winter. They climb tall mountains take residence for a short time in an unheard-of town and even take cruises to nowhere. These folks can assemble a list of events no different than a baseball fan will run his list of his favorite World Series games he has watched. To many it is their Super Bowl and to some, seeing just one is not enough. Those who pursue solar eclipses, they are proud of their endeavor as much as they are about what they see. And like the best sports fans we all know, they regularly get blown away by experiencing the magic.
On Martha’s Vineyard, we’ve seen partial solar eclipses. There was a partial annual eclipse for us on May 10, 1994. There was a partial annular solar eclipse on May 30, 1984. The 1984 show was close for us, with all but eight per cent of the sun being covered by the moon.
The event was reported in the Vineyard Gazette on June 1. “Shortly after 1 p.m., the sky over the Island became a dark and eerie blue, with puffy gray clouds scudding on a brisk southeast breeze. .. birds saw it differently and began to sing their song of eventide.”
There was another partial solar eclipse for the Vineyard reported in the March 13, 1970 Vineyard Gazette. The event was a total eclipse but you had to be a couple more miles south of Nantucket to see it in totality. For the Vineyard it was an awfully close total solar eclipse. Vineyard Gazette writer Colbert Smith began his story saying that when darkness arrived: “The light paled down to the level of dusk, for the automated street lights in Vineyard towns came on, but the light did not have the quality of dusk that conveys the imminence of night.”
We’ve had some close calls but in our memory, we’ve never been treated here to a total solar eclipse so we can only imagine what it will be like elsewhere in this country. Which is why, the one happening August 21 is so significant for so many. An eclipse in your neighborhood is truly rare.
Solar eclipses are predictable, but these events are also bound to one single truth… location. You have to be at a certain point on our Earth, at a date and time to experience it. Plus, the sky has to be clear.
I have a memory of my father, John S. Lovewell, taking me in his old car, along with my siblings, on a long drive to see an eclipse. It was on May 20, 1963. I was ten years old and I can’t remember where in Maine we went. All I remember is that we missed seeing the eclipse, because it was foggy.
Dad, now 96 years old, can still remember vividly making a trek to Cape Cod with his Edgartown relatives for the August 31, 1932 eclipse. There were clear skies then. With him were cousins Virginia and her brother Julien Weston and his aunt Edna Weston, all summer residents of Edgartown. The trip was worth it, for the Vineyard was only slightly just out of the line of totality.
That eclipse was the lead story in the Vineyard Gazette of September 1, 1932. “…there were many thousands left on the Island who drove to the hilltops armed with all sorts of paraphernalia with which to gaze at the dwindling face of the sun.”
“In Edgartown some of the old-time widow’s walks and cupolas were used as observatories by householders and their guests,” ran the story.
For us, the August 21 eclipse will not be anywhere as beautiful or dramatic as it will be for our friends in the middle of the country, nor as beautiful as what my father remembers in 1932. We can expect all but 25 per cent of the sun to be covered by the passing moon. This means the event might not be noticeable enough to feed our thirst for something significant.
With all the distractions around, you could miss this eclipse. For it could rival a weird cloudy day. The light around us darkens, but not by much. The show begins for us around 1 p.m., reaches its peak period of totality at 2:20 and ends more than an hour later. Pay attention to the time and the light and you notice it. Run around doing your chores or go have fun doing something really important and you could miss it.
For those of us not leaving the Vineyard for the show, know that astronomy remains alive and vibrant here. Being off the coast of Massachusetts and fairly isolated from the cities and their light pollution, Martha’s Vineyard is a mecca for many who love our nights in every season. Some folks don’t just join the summer pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard for our beaches. Some come to appreciate our greatest free gift and we give it away without charge: starry nights.
Sometimes our night sky is so clear what we see rivals the best observing posts in the country, like a top a mountain. On one of those nights, an observer can have the impression of almost being able to reach out and touch the stars. That is often how I feel, when I’ve had a great night here.
What else do we offer besides the moon, stars and planets? We have meteors gracing our skies.
Northern lights show from time to time, and usually it is almost always unexpected.
Celebrate the solar eclipse in the coming week by going outside at night and looking up. Watch the sky before and during dawn. Watch the sky at the end of the day, long after a sunset. Either way you do this, you will get an idea that our Island and our planet is really quite small in this magical universe.
We aren’t just visitors wandering the earth in search of understanding. Our eyes are open and we get to witness the signs of a great universe.
And for me, that is a pretty good second choice.