David Baron: You Owe it to Yourself to Experience a Total Solar Eclipse (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of author David Baron’s TED Talk: You Owe it to Yourself to Experience a Total Solar Eclipse.

 

David Baron – Author

Before I get to bulk of what I have to say, I feel compelled just to mention a couple of things about myself. I am not some mystical, spiritual sort of person. I’m a science writer. I studied physics in college. I used to be a science correspondent for NPR.

OK, that said: in the course of working on a story for NPR, I got some advice from an astronomer that challenged my outlook, and frankly, changed my life. You see, the story was about an eclipse, a partial solar eclipse that was set to cross the country in May of 1994.

And the astronomer — I interviewed him, and he explained what was going to happen and how to view it, but he emphasized that, as interesting as a partial solar eclipse is, a much rarer total solar eclipse is completely different. In a total eclipse, for all of two or three minutes, the moon completely blocks the face of the sun, creating what he described as the most awe-inspiring spectacle in all of nature.

And so the advice he gave me was this: “Before you die,” he said, “you owe it to yourself to experience a total solar eclipse.” Well honestly, I felt a little uncomfortable hearing that from someone I didn’t know very well; it felt sort of intimate. But it got my attention, and so I did some research.

Now the thing about total eclipses is, if you wait for one to come to you, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Any given point on earth experiences a total eclipse about once every 400 years. But if you’re willing to travel, you don’t have to wait that long. And so I learned that a few years later, in 1998, a total eclipse was going to cross the Caribbean.

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Now, a total eclipse is visible only along a narrow path, about a hundred miles wide, and that’s where the moon’s shadow falls. It’s called the “path of totality”. And in February 1998, the path of totality was going to cross Aruba. So I talked to my husband, and we thought: February? Aruba? Sounded like a good idea anyway.

So we headed south, to enjoy the sun and to see what would happen when the sun briefly went away. Well, the day of the eclipse found us and many other people out behind the Hyatt Regency, on the beach, waiting for the show to begin.

And we wore eclipse glasses with cardboard frames and really dark lenses that enabled us to look at the sun safely. A total eclipse begins as a partial eclipse, as the moon very slowly makes its way in front of the sun. So first it looked the sun had a little notch in its edge, and then that notch grew larger and larger, turning the sun into a crescent. And it was all very interesting, but I wouldn’t say it was spectacular. I mean, the day remained bright.

If I hadn’t known what was going on overhead, I wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual. Well, about 10 minutes before the total solar eclipse was set to begin, weird things started to happen. A cool wind kicked up. Daylight looked odd, and shadows became very strange; they looked bizarrely sharp, as if someone had turned up the contrast knob on the TV. Then I looked offshore, and I noticed running lights on boats, so clearly it was getting dark, although I hadn’t realized it.

Well soon, it was obvious it was getting dark. It felt like my eyesight was failing. And then all of a sudden, the lights went out. Well, at that, a cheer erupted from the beach, and I took off my eclipse glasses, because at this point during the total eclipse, it was safe to look at the sun with the naked eye. And I glanced upward, and I was just dumbstruck.

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Now, consider that, at this point, I was in my mid-30s. I had lived on earth long enough to know what the sky looks like I mean — I’d seen blue skies and grey skies and starry skies and angry skies and pink skies at sunrise. But here was a sky I had never seen.

First, there were the colors. Up above, it was a deep purple-grey, like twilight. But on the horizon it was orange, like sunset, 360 degrees. And up above, in the twilight, bright stars and planets had come out. So there was Jupiter and there was Mercury and there was Venus. They were all in a line.

And there, along this line, was this thing, this glorious, bewildering thing. It looked like a wreath woven from silvery thread, and it just hung out there in space, shimmering. That was the sun’s outer atmosphere, the solar corona. And pictures just don’t do it justice. It’s not just a ring or halo around the sun; it’s finely textured, like it’s made out of strands of silk.

And although it looked nothing like our sun, of course, I knew that’s what it was. So there was the sun, and there were the planets, and I could see how the planets revolve around the sun. It’s like I had left our solar system and was standing on some alien world, looking back at creation. And for the first time in my life, I just felt viscerally connected to the universe in all of its immensity. Time stopped, or it just kind of felt nonexistent, and what I beheld with my eyes — I didn’t just see it, it felt like a vision.

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