Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Photoessay: Eclipse USA at Madras High School


The total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, cast the umbral shadow of the moon across the continental US from Oregon to South Carolina. We were on hand at Madras High School in central Oregon, in a town that has a permanent population of less than 7,000 but on Monday had probably 70,000.

Venus disappeared just a few moments after sunrise at Madras H.S. in Oregon. (Voxitatis)

Lowell Observatory from Flagstaff, Ariz., gave a few lectures in the school’s auditorium

and a few brief talks outside, mainly answering questions about the sunspots.

Students put their science projects and posters on display.

Other experts were also on hand to give brief presentations, here about orbits.

And astronomers talked several times to the Science Channel.

Some of the experts even spoke with student journalists.

But mostly, people just looked up at the sun in wonder,

as they watched the scoreboard clock count down to the instant totality would begin.

And when it hit 0:00, thousands of people applauded the sun,

the sky turned mid-twilight blue, Venus reappeared, and the corona showed its brilliant white, wispy feather.

All the pictures I have seen of the eclipse fail to do justice to actually being there because of the colors. Most pictures of totality show the sky black and the moon black. That is not an accurate representation of reality, even though camera auto-exposure control is to blame. The sky is actually a beautiful shade of blue during totality, not black, and the moon is so black that even good cameras can’t capture just how different it is from the sky.

Because of this, we are not publishing any photos we took of totality; they are inaccurate, compared to what I saw through my own eyes as the photographer.

Besides, this is probably going to go down as the single most photographed eclipse in history. Judging from the 16 hours it took me to get from Madras to the California line on US Route 97, which is mostly a two-lane highway with cross streets in several spots, everybody in California was also in Madras, taking pictures of the eclipse with their iPhones or better equipment.

If you didn’t get a chance to see totality this time, another eclipse will dance across the continental US on April 8, 2024. There are other total eclipses in other countries before that, but the short-lived event and the risk of cloudy skies might give many people reason to pause before deciding to travel to another country or continent just for a total solar eclipse.

As I was sitting in park along US-97 Monday afternoon, Monday evening, Tuesday morning, and so on, I kept thinking it was the single best traffic jam in the history of traffic jams. Traffic this bad is often frustrating, but nobody seemed frustrated, having just seen the most spectacular two-minute show of their lives.

Two take-away lessons:

  1. Madras High School was able to set the scoreboard clock to the exact second totality would begin because scientists and mathematicians can predict that instant based on what they know about the orbit of the moon. Some parts of science are exact like that, while other aspects of science, such as climate change, are much less exact.
  2. When the sun peeks through the craters and hills on the moon’s surface, just before totality ends, the “diamond ring” effect you can see is very interesting and exciting.

So for a few moments, we took a step back from politics, from test scores, from state budgets, and other worldly trivia and pondered our place in the cosmos and the vast superiority of nature itself to let us see what is true and beautiful in our lives.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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