I’d like to share a video I made in Helen, Georgia on August 21st. It shows the how the sky darkens but more importantly, you can hear how people react to the sight of an eclipse. Yes it’s an American crowd and you expect them to be noisy but this is genuine awe.
The video doesn’t show the Sun or the Moon during the eclipse – trust me, it would look like a little white pixel! The moon could be covered by the end of a little finger but to those watching it seemed as big as a fist. You cannot depict such an event on a computer display or TV screen. And photographs don’t work either because the experience is fundamentally about the changes that happen before, during and after the eclipse. The sky darkens and the light transforms in a way not seen at any other time. Go and see one – you’ll not be disappointed!
When we got back home we were curious to see how the local BBC had covered it. TV coverage in the US was unbelievably banal with warnings about keeping pets indoors “because their eyesight can get damaged too, if they stare at the sun.” Fortunately, animals aren’t as stupid as some people!
Regrettably the BBC didn’t fare much better, with the presenters looking at a dull orange crescent or a tiny bright spot outside of an airplane window declaring, “look at that.. absolutely spectacular!” – well no it really isn’t, so please stop pretending that it is. Neither the TV presenter nor studio guest (from the Royal Astronomical Society no less!) had ever actually seen a total eclipse, which was blatantly obvious from their total lack of insight. So this is my attempt to explain why people will travel the globe just to see a total solar eclipse.
Turn up the sound
What you can hear in the video is the reaction of the crowd which hopefully gives an indication of the excitement of the event.
Despite appearances, the video begins with only about 75 seconds to go before totality and so it’s already quite dark and some house lights have come on. It was shot with a fixed exposure and aperture to give a better idea of how quickly the light dims.
As the Sun disappears behind the Moon, the world darkens in a way that is unique to an eclipse. More house lights are coming on but with a cloudless sky and the Sun overhead there are still sharp dark shadows—something that you don’t get on a dull cloudy day or at dusk. People may not realise why but everyone knows something abnormal is happening and the excitement rises. Look closer at the shadows and you’ll see they aren’t quite right either—round holes create crescent shaped chinks of light and the edges are blurred.
As totality approaches and the sky rapidly darkens, everyone realises that they are about to witness something special.
We’re at the point of no return and the incredible thrill of seeing the diamond ring can be heard as the crowd screams in amazement. This is soon replaced with gasps as the Sun disappears completely. For 1 minute and 39 seconds everyone is in awe of the spectacle, desperately trying to come to terms with something that is so unnatural and so extraordinary. Cameras fail to catch the colours in the sky or the flares around the Moon and Sun and nothing can capture the blackness of the hole in the sky where the Sun should be.
[someone lets off fireworks at this point – hey! this is America]
All too soon the Sun finds its way around the cratered edge of the Moon and a new diamond ring appears thrilling us all once more, but growing so rapidly in brightness that, in seconds, the Sun’s power once again forces everybody to look away.
Until the next time—if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time in this incredible Universe.