Why is a solar eclipse special?

by on August 19, 2017 at 12:16 am in Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

I recall the eclipse in 1973.  As a kid, I made some kind of cardboard box, so I could view the sun through a little squinting hole.  The entire event was a big disappointment, even given the fact that, at the time, I had hardly seen anything before.  I hadn’t even been to Philadelphia.

I’ve seen it get dark before.  So is it special because we wonder how the others will react?  If traffic will freeze up and wild animals will burrow into the sleep holes for the night?  Or do we care simply because it is rare and publicly observable?  (NB: It is the 3 billionth total solar eclipse.)  Because it upends something about our sense of the world and its underlying orderliness?  Because we somehow find the crossing of the heavenly bodies intrinsically aesthetic?

Because we can see it?  No one much seems to care when various planets line up in what are supposed to be astrologically meaningful ways.  Or maybe because the event is dangerous and capable of damaging our eyes.

Or is it like a football game, namely that you go someplace to watch it and drink a lot of beer?  Would it be a lesser public event if everyone could see it perfectly from their back yard?  Few people get to see it from a plane.

I expect to be underwhelmed.

1 Potato August 19, 2017 at 12:28 am

It’s a stark reminder of things we lose sight of in our day to day minutiae bound and status seeking lives. It’s the universe screaming at the top of its lungs “momento mori.”

Physically, scientifically, it is a nonevent. Predictable with certainty to the end of the finite life of the sun. The ancient Aztecs and Greeks could calculate its timing. Symbolically, it is a nonverbal Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A dramatic experience to shock the complacent into remembering that we are nothing compared to the infinite. A lesson in fatalism and our dependency on factors outside our (nonexistent) control: the sun for energy and life is a perfect symbol of life’s fragility.

As an avid reader I find it flabbergasting that you do not appreciate the symbolism.

2 msgkings August 19, 2017 at 12:41 am

Wow thread winner with the first post.

3 Chip August 19, 2017 at 1:23 am


A visible, visceral reminder that we don’t just live in a world – of work, school, bills, politics etc – but on a planet in a solar system. Sobering.

4 dearieme August 19, 2017 at 3:58 am

As fine a piss-take as I’ve seen this year. Keep up the purple prose, Potato.

5 yorgil August 19, 2017 at 6:07 am

well written, Potato

6 nigel August 19, 2017 at 7:31 am


But also, Tyler’s analysis here assumes away its uncanniness. Sure, once you take as a given that a planet as small as the Earth has one relatively huge moon, and that it is positioned in such a way relative to the sun that the two discs are roughly equal in size from the perspective of the surface of the planet, and that their or orbital paths are such as to allow for solar eclipses, a solar eclipse is a non event. But all of those things make people think, hey maybe there is something remarkable about this planet after all. And then they allow for all the symbolism Potato talks about and more, male/female representations, their coming together (is sex unremarkable because it’s biologically predictable?), etc.

I think intelligent design-ism is overwrought, but whatever your cosmology, the facts of the sun and moon and their occasional cyclical convergence is remarkable. At the very least, remarkable like finding a pebble in the shape of a perfect sphere, or a natural land bridge.

7 Tyler Cowen August 19, 2017 at 7:39 am

But I hear that scream every day.

8 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 8:08 am

What an unpleasant life you must lead in that case.

9 chinese superbaby August 19, 2017 at 10:08 am

dance, little trollbot

10 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 11:32 am

Well, since apparently since I am a puffin, let me see how that dance would look – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN-O2NzMJds

Though that was apparently in Baltimore, so no WC Fields reference.

11 msgkings August 19, 2017 at 7:00 pm

I love how obsessed you are with my comment. Hint: the troll was not about you being a puffin.

12 Ricardo August 21, 2017 at 9:15 am

Tell us all how to hear it every day too! I want to know!

13 Anonymous August 19, 2017 at 8:15 am

You may not appreciate the political turn, but I had a thought. Trump fires all the scientists and bars government from believing in global warming. And it works, because no one directly feels climate change. It takes a lot of data and a lot of math. Voters don’t do data or math.

So how much harder would it be for him to declare the earth the center of the universe? Perhaps even Trump Tower? The average voter would not have data or math to disprove it. And I am sure 6/10 Republicans would agree.

14 The Other Jim August 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

…. and, a thread-losing post in response to the thread-winning post.

There sure is a rich tapestry of diversity around here.

15 Anonymous August 19, 2017 at 9:03 am

Oh I don’t deny that there are some great and on topic comments on this page, but the heliocentrism thing was really a thought I had, and the denial of science shoe inarguably fits.

16 Anonymous August 19, 2017 at 12:18 pm

I bet, if you think back, you were taught heliocentrism in a government school!

17 Mark Thorson August 19, 2017 at 6:33 pm

Oh, c’mon. You really believe there’s going to be an eclipse on Monday or whenever it is? That’s fake news. What do these so-called “scientists” know? It’s just all guesswork.

18 Anon August 19, 2017 at 2:20 pm

A Nobel Prize winning Physicist who says BS to using flawed computer models to ‘prove’ AGW is anti-science?

Check your assumptions and try again. See Iver Giever.

19 Anonymous August 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm

On cue.

20 Rich Berger August 19, 2017 at 5:26 pm
21 Anonymous August 19, 2017 at 10:33 pm

Clicking through to the original, it certainly is the most contrived blend of astronomy and racial politics I have ever seen.

“I know you want to write about race, but give us a few thousand words on the eclipse.”


22 cliff arroyo August 20, 2017 at 8:57 am

Tyler’s response is not post modern, it’s pre-consciousness, he simply accepts the sudden darkness and rapid return of day the way the birds do…

23 Colin August 19, 2017 at 12:35 am

If you weren’t in the path of totality, of course it’s underwhelming. But if you’re in the path of totality, you get to see the corona. That’s what I’m looking forward to, and I think the reason people get so excited about it.

24 efim polenov August 19, 2017 at 12:52 am

Colin – Exactly. Path of totality – you get to see solar flares (sort of like seeing a far off star in your backyard with all of its details, like those dreams we had when we were little that we got to live in the sky for a few days, who knows why, dream logic is dream logic), you get to see our beloved closest planets Venus and Mercury high in the sky, for once in your life, instead of near the horizon – and that is a big deal, sort of like seeing your elderly grandma the way she looked when everyone who lived in the 30s was young in the 30s and looked good in clothes of the 30s – I personally don’t remember, but I have been told that the old movies do not do justice to the cool ways that people dressed in the 30s – and you get to see, if you look for it, flashes of light through lunar craters (with which you may or may not be familiar, but which, to tell the truth, are the same lunar craters that lunar observers have observed for all your life): then there are the strange phenomena like Bailey’s beads and the derivative waves of light that majestically pass over the ground (sorry, I am not being poetic, that is an actual thing – something to do with diffraction and atmospheric effects). As for me, I will be outside the path of totality, and I plan to just walk into the local woods and sit around, not looking at the sun, to see if any of the resident deer or rodents or rabbits or canids (Coyotes) or, if I am super lucky, felines (Bobcats!) do anything interesting when it gets sort of dark in the middle of the day. If any such animal seems really upset I will try to reassure it. No eclipse glasses or “pinpoint papers” for me: but I am lucky enough to live near a woods.

25 efim polenov August 19, 2017 at 1:03 am

Well, Bailey’s Beads ‘are’ flashes of lights through lunar craters. And my grandmothers were both fairly elderly in the 30s – they were still fairly young women in 1895, though, and, although I am not a friend of a friend of the person responsible for the “costumes” of a really good movie set in 1895 or so (‘The Music Man’, say, with the a propos lyrics ‘to get the sun back in the sky), well, I could have been.

26 efim polenov August 19, 2017 at 1:09 am

see also Bruce Charlton: what to do in the forthcoming eclipse. Slightly melodramatic, but more insightful than I could be.

27 efim polenov August 19, 2017 at 1:14 am

maternal grandmother – 19 in 1895, paternal grandmother, 29 in 1895. Just in case you were wondering. Good times – I wish I was there.

28 efim polenov August 19, 2017 at 1:24 am

but I have friends – well, people I play cards with, and talk with and once in a while go to museums or zoos with – with grandmothers who were both 19 in the 50s (very early 50s, but still). Equally times I would like to visit. I guess almost everyone feels the same, regardless of the secular decade. Sorry for the multiple comments; someday all of us may learn to get to the point quickly. Enjoy the eclipse.

29 mkt42 August 19, 2017 at 1:20 am

Yes, I can’t quite tell from Tyler’s reminisces if he saw a total eclipse or partial one. The 1973 eclipse achieved totality only in South America and Africa (and the Atlantic Ocean), quite a ways from New Jersey.

Partial eclipses are much as Tyler describes (except it doesn’t even get dark, unless you’re at something like 98% totality). I wouldn’t cross the street to watch a partial eclipse.

But I’ve traveled to different continents to watch total eclipses (obviously we did other sightseeing too). People have offered a lot of similes, partial and total eclipses are like holding hands compared to sex, but perhaps the best one is the closest one: they are like night and day. Totally different experiences.

Because a partial eclipse is just an ordinary day, maybe the light gets a little dim but many people wouldn’t even notice, and you still can’t/shouldn’t look at the sun. If you have a pinhole camera or solar filters you can look at it, and you’ll see that a bite has been taken out of the sun, but you might as well stay home and look at a photo in a book, the experience is much the same. Totally underwhelming.

A total eclipse is mind-blowing, and this quote from Tyler suggests that he has not experienced one:

“I’ve seen it get dark before.”

Not like this you haven’t. Because when the eclipse reaches totality, you can look directly at the sun. But there is no sun! Just the black disk of the moon (invisible until just before totality unless you’re using those solar filters), and the fiery but dim corona, which is invisible at all other times. Except for other total solar eclipses, I guarantee that you haven’t seen anything like this. The sky is dark but not midnight dark, more like twilight. Stars come out, but far faster than they do when the sun sets. The sun is hanging in the sky but only dimly lighting the landscape. You might be able to see Mercury and/or Venus — at the same time as you see the sun, or where the sun would be.

And it’s not just a visual effect, which is why photos and TV cannot come close to conveying the experience. Sounds change: the birds stop chirping, and people will gasp in amazement, yell, and cheer. I guarantee they won’t be cheering at a partial eclipse, it’s too mundane. Touch changes too, because the temperature falls, again far faster than it does during sunset.

And I haven’t even mentioned other eclipse phenomena such as the shadow bands, the diamond ring effect, Bailey’s Beads, etc.

Actually Tyler’s description of his pinhole camera made out of a cardboard box makes me realize that he saw only a partial eclipse. If the eclipse had been total, he would’ve thrown down the cardboard box and stared at the sun and the landscape, and his description of the experience wouldn’t even mention the cardboard box.

It’s similar to going to a bad play and being annoyed by the guy two seats away who’s constantly coughing, and afterward talking about how annoying he was. But if the play was great and enthralling, you come back and you’re not going to be talking about the coughing guy or cardboard boxes or the like. You’re going to be talking about the experience that you’ll remember vividly for the rest of your life.

30 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 4:53 am

Having experienced a total eclipse, though much of your description is accurate (you left out the wind, possibly – having only experienced one eclipse, the wind that seemed caused by the last covering of the sun was notable, though possibly not really a totality event), I still don’t get the attraction of the event that seems so intense among some people.

And as anecdata – of the people in this region, which was pretty much in the exact center of the totality band, very few seem to have viewed that event as life changing in any way, shape, or form, immediately after or years later.

Of course people should still try to experience it if practical with minimal effort, but the intense pull of such an event escapes me.

31 mkt42 August 22, 2017 at 4:41 pm

We may have different interpretations of what it means for an event to be “remembered vividly for the rest of your life” vs “life changing in any way”. Or we may have a real disagreement about what the experience of watching a total solar eclipse is like, and all I can say is several million eclipse watchers can’t be wrong:

32 lemonade8 August 23, 2017 at 11:50 pm

Prior, I agree. This was my second eclipse and I was mildly interested, but not overwhelmed with emotion or anything. I heard someone on the radio say “you can’t prepare for something like this”. I mean, I’m glad she felt that way because it meant that she had a great experience, but the first thing that entered my head was “Well, it gets dark every night…”

33 TB August 19, 2017 at 11:29 pm

Perhaps Tyler meant the 1970 total eclipse? It looks like it went right through New Jersey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse_of_March_7,_1970

34 Ray Lopez August 19, 2017 at 12:43 am

What is really cool about eclipses is that if, like the Spanish conquistadors –or was it Captain Cook?–just before you are about to be eaten by cannibals, and/or to increase your status, you can predict a solar eclipse, you can save the day for yourself. Works also if you’re an astronomer accused of witchcraft by the local yokals (was it Tycho Brahe? Yes it was: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/December_1573_lunar_eclipse)

Bonus trivia: in one of his journeys, Magellan, who sailed around the world (or his crew did), lost his life when he tried to pick sides in Cebu, Philippines. Never get involved in developing world feuds is my advice. They have a giant statute of Cap. Cook’s killer, Lapu Lapu, near Cebu’s airport. Capitan Cook, who discovered Australia, I believe had the same thing happen to him in Hawaii.

35 mkt42 August 19, 2017 at 1:25 am

You’re thinking of Christopher Columbus and his use of a lunar eclipse:

However TinTin did utilize a solar eclipse:

36 Benjamin Kudria August 19, 2017 at 1:26 am
37 Ike August 22, 2017 at 8:34 am

If a science fiction writer on the other side of the galaxy wrote a novel that included a transit of bodies that were so perfectly situated as we now live, his editor would throw it out for being too much of a story crutch.

38 Ara August 19, 2017 at 1:54 am

Solar eclipse can be a small thing sure you don’t have to care but for the fun of it it doesn’t really matter unless it damages stuff in space

39 Thanatos Savehn August 19, 2017 at 3:09 am

I saw it back then with my Mom and Dad, projected onto a white piece of paper after passing through a pin hole. My Mom and I were talking about it just last week (Dad is gone now). We’re not fancy people like you, traveling the world on taxpayer dollars and eating dead octopus eyeballs and live monkey brains, but we remembered it; nevertheless. And it was very cool. But what do regular people like us know?

40 Ricardo August 21, 2017 at 9:20 am

Why the insecurity?

41 Yancey Ward August 19, 2017 at 3:18 am

This is a perplexing post from someone as intelligent as Tyler Cowen is supposed to be. In total, his post seems to indicate he has literally no clue what a total eclipse considering he is comparing the baleful partial eclipse he would have witnessed in Philadelphia to what is possible for him to see with a 400 mile car trip.

I have never witnessed one in person- I have seen partial eclipses in 1979 (pitiful where I lived), in May 1984 (quite spectacular since I wasn’t all that far from being in the path of seeing an annular eclipse, and another in May of 1994 which was a bit less spectacular, but occurred on a crystal clear day.

A commenter on Althouse recounted his experience with a total eclipse in Maine in July of 1963 (incidentally, the same Saros Series 145 that is producing Monday’s eclipse). He wrote that he and his friends (they were teenagers at the time) climbed to the top of a mountain that was in the path of totality. He said it was truly mind blowing as they looked to the west just before the Sun was completely obscured and could see the shadow of the Moon rushing at them at a 1000 miles an hour over the valleys.

Tyler, are just going to sit at home Monday and watch the partial eclipse?

42 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 4:45 am

Not to defend Prof. Cowen, but I also experienced all those earlier East Coast partial eclipses, which were not all that overwhelming. And I have also experienced a total eclipse, pretty much in the center of the totality band (August 11, 1999). Personally, I still do not understand why some people are entranced by total eclipses, or why anyone thinks they are such a life changing event.

Nonetheless, everyone who has a chance to experience a total eclipse with minimal effort should – my experience won’t be yours, obviously.

And yes, seeing the corona is certainly a reminder that the sun is not just a simple bright ball in the sky, though these days, that is not exactly something that inspires awe in any educated person.

43 The Other Jim August 19, 2017 at 9:04 am

If he were merely complaining about his parents dragging him 400 miles to see it get dark for a few minutes — after they had hyped it to him as mind-blowing — that would be one thing.

But it’s very clear that he still doesn’t get it. I’ve mocked his bubble before, but it’s deeper than even I had realized. This is the first time I’ve felt truly sorry for him.

44 dearieme August 19, 2017 at 3:56 am

“I hadn’t even been to Philadelphia.” Best sentence of the year so far.

45 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 4:37 am

Well, if you a fan of snide East Coat putdowns. The DC suburban equivalent would be ‘I hadn’t even been to Baltimore yet.’

46 dearieme August 19, 2017 at 6:02 am

But that lacks an allusion to W C Fields and is therefore far inferior.

47 Al August 19, 2017 at 5:05 am

Got to agree, this should be a non-event.

48 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 5:06 am

Experience it first, then make up your own mind.

49 Colin August 19, 2017 at 5:46 am

All normies feel bad for not thinking about space enough and having total loss of perspective, so like good modern people we gravitate towards the quick one night fix that reassures ourselves

50 Axa August 19, 2017 at 6:49 am


Why it made our ancestors so scary?

One eclipse offered the first chance to verify the crazy ideas of Einstein.

51 rayward August 19, 2017 at 7:20 am

It’s the anticipation of the big event not the big event itself that is the allure. Of course, there’s no bigger event than the Last Judgment for both Christians and Muslims, who have spent several thousand years (in the case of Christians) in anticipation. The big event also serves to confirm our beliefs. In the case of the big game, it confirms the belief that our team is better than their team. Similarly, the Last Judgment confirms the belief that our religion is better than their religion. Or so we hope. I suppose that if their religion is better than our religion, the Last Judgment will be even worse than losing the big game. If the eclipse turns out to be the big event Christians and Muslims have been waiting for, I’ll stay home for the same reason I don’t attend the big game: we may lose.

52 dearieme August 19, 2017 at 9:40 am

Few people use “several” to mean ‘two’.

53 Keith Arnaud August 19, 2017 at 7:25 am

There is a fascinating piece of scientific data that is only accessible from knowledge of past total eclipses. If you have records that a total eclipse was observed in eg Babylon in a particular year (which need only be known approximately) then that places strong constraints on the history of the rotation period of the Earth. Small changes in the rotation period shift the location of totality significantly.

54 Evans_KY August 19, 2017 at 7:39 am

As a scientist, I view space as a frontier with known and unknowns. We know the eclipse is coming but we still must observe. It reminds us that we are part of a much bigger dance that we have little influence on. So much must go right for us to continue spinning through this Universe. It should humble and induce a bit of gratefulness.

As an aside, I often find economic metrics to be a bit underwhelming (for technical reasons). To each his own.

55 derek August 19, 2017 at 7:53 am

Its amazing what you see if you just look.

56 Rich Berger August 19, 2017 at 7:58 am

So here’s a total eclipse of Creation by Tyler’s ego.

57 Doc at the Radar Station August 19, 2017 at 8:07 am

I wonder what music will people be listening to (if any)? Obviously, the opening minutes of Dark Side of the Moon sound like good candidates. Is there an iMAX crew doing any filming of this in a nice dry, sunny area out in Wyoming, i.e.?

58 prior_test3 August 19, 2017 at 8:17 am

Maybe this literal video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsgWUq0fdKk

59 New waver August 20, 2017 at 10:30 pm
60 Doc at the Radar Station August 19, 2017 at 8:09 am

Hmmm. Pink Floyd’s “Set the Control for the Heart of the Sun” might be a good music accompaniment.

61 Johnny B August 19, 2017 at 11:00 am
62 msgkings August 19, 2017 at 7:07 pm

Ooooh edgy! You da man!

63 Hadur August 19, 2017 at 8:17 am

Total solar eclipses are rare and unusual. Though they are common on a geologic timescale, within a human lifetime there will only be a few total solar eclipses that are conveniently located for you to see. Most of the total solar eclipses in my lifetime happened out over the ocean somewhere, and were seen mostly by tourists who chartered cruise ships to take them to the middle of nowhere.

64 TODD S FLETCHER August 19, 2017 at 11:13 am

Typical of an economist that he fails to notice that the darkness and the coming of it that results from an eclipse has a totally different quality of light, one that is not duplicated by another other phenomena

65 derek August 19, 2017 at 11:48 am

Indeed. But you have to be open to seeing things.

A story. During the winter here wildlife is rare or difficult to access. The days are short, the light is bad. There is one species of bird that you can see on those days, the American Dipper. So I and a friend go watch them, photograph them in action. Each year we notice something different that we didn’t see before, and with some success manage to photograph what they are doing.

The first time I watched Kestrel adults feed their young chicks I was shaking with excitement. I don’t react like that now, but I see it in others. Each spring we get Mountain Bluebirds for a few weeks in the valley bottom. I have many photographs and enjoy watching them. My wife saw one for the first time one spring and was overwhelmed with emotion.

How could one be disappointed by a solar eclipse unless you decide to be beforehand? It isn’t a show put on for you. It is what it is, and there are details that you can see if you are open to watching for them. There isn’t a checklist somewhere.


Eclipses are racist.

66 Doc at the Radar Station August 19, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Here’s a good version (with neat video) of Pink Floyd’s, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

67 Hopaulius August 19, 2017 at 2:52 pm

I’m expecting that 911 dispatchers will receive many panicked calls fearing that the sun has gone out.

68 joe August 19, 2017 at 5:30 pm

The 1973 eclipse was only a partial eclipse in the US. It doesn’t compare to a total eclipse.

A person probably wouldn’t even be aware an eclipse was happening if it was less than 90% coverage. The annular eclipse in Boston was 95% and it got a bit dim which was sort of cool but even that was just the barest taste of what a total eclipse is like. Even at 95% coverage the sun was too bright to look at with the naked eye. With a total eclipse you can look directly up at it and see the corona without protection.

If you’re not in the path of totality there’s nothing to get too excited about, but if you can’t look up at the sky and look in awe at a total eclipse than I’m not sure what would ever stir you.

69 Donna Lowe August 20, 2017 at 11:08 pm

Trying find out about the empty ceral box were you use aluminum foil and a pin hole. Help help pleade

70 Mark Bahner August 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

“I expect to be underwhelmed.”

Living where the maximum coverage was ~93%, there wasn’t much very remarkable. It got *slightly* dimmer at maximum coverage, but if one couldn’t look through glasses to see the coverage, one wouldn’t have noticed the eclipse.

The only very interesting thing was the birds went bonkers for ~5 minutes around maximum. Every bird seemed to be calling out. But it was only for ~5 minutes.

71 aMichael August 22, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Either see totality or be underwhelmed. That was my experience. There’s a big difference between even 99% coverage and 100%.

72 Wil Wade August 21, 2017 at 9:45 pm

Ok so got home from going to the center line of totality (2:39s inside the shadow)

Totally worth it. Blew me away. Seeing the corona was amazing, but nothing quite as amazing as the point where the sun peaked back out the other side. I agree that if the only thing I saw was a partial with a pinhole, then it would have been interesting, but not amazing. We used binoculars to make a projection system that enabled seeing the sun at about 4cm diameter on paper. Saw sun spots that way. One group had a telescope projecting it at about 50cm large.

In addition to the great view, the enjoyment of experiencing it with family and strangers made it that much better.

Have seen, will travel to see again.

73 aMichael August 21, 2017 at 11:50 pm

Tyler, did you see the total eclipse? It was the most spectacular thing I’ve seen in the skies. Granted, if beautiful sunsets were as rare, I might rank them higher, but the total eclipse gave me chills. I was in awe. But I’ve always been underwhelmed by partial eclipses.

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