This past summer’s total solar eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. For me, it was a way to bond with my 4 year old son through science.
Prior to this summer, I had never seen a total solar eclipse. They are very rare, occurring anywhere from 2 to 4 times per year, but only for a very narrow, 50 mile strip of earth that doesn’t always fall over land. Growing up, I had the opportunity to experience lots of cool astronomical phenomena, like meteor showers and seeing Jupiter’s moons, but one thing I had never seen was a total eclipse. I figured that taking my son to see the eclipse would be a great opportunity to have father-son time, and share my love for science with him.
When I heard about the Great American Eclipse of 2017, I knew it was time to make plans and prepare.
It was probably March or April of last year when I started getting the idea in my head of going to see the eclipse. I talked to my buddy and we made plans to drive down to see it. We knew that Carbondale, IL was going to be super busy, and anticipating crazy crowds, I decided to go for somewhere a bit less intense. I made reservations for a hotel in Kirkwood, MO, just outside of St. Louis, but inside of the path of totality! That way, if we wanted to, we could just stand in our hotel parking lot and be in totality.
Before we left, I told Jacob about the eclipse and showed him how the Moon covers the Sun. We took out my telescope and looked at the Moon so he could see that it was almost the same size in the sky as the Sun. (no, we didn’t look at the Sun through the telescope!)
We also did a lot of cool eclipse stuff in the time leading up to totality. At home, I had built an eclipse box. I just took an old diaper box and cut a hole at one end. Jake helped me put on some aluminum foil over the hole, and punch a hole in the foil with a pin. You can then use the box to project really cool images of the Sun (more on this later). I even had an opportunity to share my story during an interview with Jim Williams from CBS 2 Chicago. I felt very fortunate to be able to represent everyone from Chicago going to see the eclipse, both as a teacher and as a father.
Preparations were made, and we headed down to St. Louis for the weekend.
We packed all five of us (two adults and three kids 7 and under) into a minivan and drove down to St. Louis, with a quick stop at Champaign to visit our alma mater and have lunch. While in town, we went to the St. Louis Children’s Museum, spent a lot of time at the hotel pool, and ate lots of steak! Finally, it was the morning of the eclipse. We were invited to an eclipse party at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with a great view! In the map below, you can see how the eclipse party was located much closer to the red line which is the maximum path of totality. In other words, it’s where the Sun stays eclipsed for the longest amount of time (almost 2 min 40 sec).
We got really lucky with the weather. Although it was hot and humid, that’s par for the course for St. Louis in August. But the skies were mostly clear with isolated storms to our east, near Carbondale. We arrived in Washington and set up shop. My friend brought a camera to set up to take some time-lapse images but I was just happy to be there with my son and share this elusive experience with him.
They say that there are no words for how cool seeing an eclipse is. They were right.
It’s really hard to describe how strange and magical seeing a total eclipse is in person. When the Moon first appears to make contact with the Sun, you don’t even notice. If you look at the Sun through your eclipse glasses, after a while you can see a crescent-shaped bite taken out of the Moon. And you can see a cool effect if you look at the image of the Sun made by overlapping leaves, kinda like the eclipse box but with many more holes and images. Usually these images of the Sun are perfectly circular, but not when there’s an eclipse!
Then, as you get close to totality, the light outside takes on a strange quality. There’s no words to describe it but it sort of reminds you of twilight. It’s still very dangerous to look directly at the Sun, even when it’s close to totality. You will damage your eyesight because you don’t have nerves for pain for sunlight (when there’s not an eclipse, you will tend to look away from the Sun and you’ll squint because it’s just so bright). A few minutes before totality, it looked a bit like this picture. I just noticed, while writing this, that there is a secondary image of the Sun near the roof of the house! I wonder if this was an internal image made by my cell phone camera?
Totality itself was breathtaking. It looked like just after sunset, but in 360 degrees. There was a sort of perpetual twilight. They say if you are up on a hill you can see the shadow of the Sun racing towards you, or feel the temperature drop several degrees. We didn’t get to see all that, but you could hear crickets chirping and a bird fell asleep on a telephone wire, thinking it was nighttime. It really was a magical experience, one I hope to repeat with my family in April 2024 for the next one!
I’m so thankful that I was able to share this experience with my son.
Jacob and I had such a great time. From practicing wearing eclipse glasses, explaining how eclipses happen to Jim Williams, to taking in the event, he really had a blast. Growing up, I was inspired in many ways, and I hope to be that source of inspiration for my kids as they grow.