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  • Writer's pictureAlex Martin

2017: My first Total Solar Eclipse

Updated: Apr 14

by Alex Martin, Executive Director

March 21, 2024



Believe it or not, I wasn't as into science 15 years ago as I am these days; I always liked science and astronomy growing up, but when I started college in 2010 majoring in Physics, I found myself more focused on writing my ongoing science-fiction series rather than on studying for courses. I'd slid through high school, but given my own independence, I repeatedly put my passions ahead of schoolwork. My interest in science waned and waxed, and I remember taking a rinky-dink telescope into downtown Pittsburgh once or twice to show people Jupiter and Saturn. But it was all a far cry from creating the lifestyle around science communication you see me living today.

 

More out of necessity than will, I ended up graduating in 2016 with degrees in English (creative writing) and Math. I then went on to do two semesters of graduate work in Space Law & Policy, and Orbital Mechanics. Though I loved the courses, I also learned that I tended to slip back into my distracted-student ways, and decided to pause my formal education there.

 

Now it was early 2017. I was an assistant manager at a sports retail store. My interest in science was growing again, to the point where I'd show my high school employees little science tricks during slower hours. I also heard about the upcoming Total Solar Eclipse around this time, and after talking with my online friend in Oregon, we made arrangements for me to visit, stay for a week, travel around Oregon, and of course, watch the eclipse. I booked flights in March 2017, requested off that week in August...and eclipse fever hit me.

 

I bought glasses and filters, a video camera, eclipse t-shirts, the lot. I promised my small social media following I'd livestream the eclipse (find that same video here). The closer the trip got, the more my adrenaline surged. That June, my best friends from college invited me to move down to Savannah, Georgia with them in the Fall. Of course I said yes! I'd see the eclipse, then pack up and move halfway down the country.

 

August came. I traveled to Oregon. My friend and I hiked every single day, visiting some of my Bucket List places like Cannon Beach, Mount Hood, and Multnomah Falls. Everywhere we went, people and towns were preparing. Eclipse signs on every business, people camping out in parks by the hundreds, telescope parties nearly every night, drinks and food with eclipse-themed names at all the restaurants we went to. I didn't have eclipse fever; everyone had eclipse fever.

 

We were supposed to travel to downtown Salem for the eclipse festival the morning of August 21st, but when we woke up and the skies were crystal clear, we decided to stay put rather than fight the ensuing traffic. I didn't know it at the time, but I ended up missing a Flat Earth documentary being filmed at the same park in Salem we would have gone to, the same documentary I now show in all my pseudoscience classes to highlight how conspiracy theories are born, spread, and perpetuate, and how we might be able to recognize, communicate with, and dissuade pseudoscientific thinking.

 

Around 8:30am, we were all set up, glasses at the ready, cameras on tripods filtered for the Sun. And then...the sliver of black appeared on the edge of the orange circle in the sky. First contact. The Moon had begun its transit of the Sun.

 

Over the following 1.5 hours, the black circle of the Moon swallowed the Sun, turning the Sun into a Pac-Man-esque figure, then a thin sliver of yellow. All around us, the shadows underneath trees changed shapeless blobs of light, to sharp crescents mimicking the image of the obstructed Sun. Most viewers in North America will be able to see this happen even with just 20-30% obstruction.Then, a few minutes before Totality, a light beam burst from between mountains on the Moon: the Diamond Ring effect.


At this point, it's important to note that we needed to wear eclipse glasses the entire time up to this point. Most of eclipse gazing is spent behind those black shades that reflect infrared and ultraviolet light to protect your eyes.


Until Totality.


If you get into the shadow, take the glasses off during Totality. It is safe, and it will change your life forever.


Darkness. Stars. No wind. A temperature drop of about 15 degrees. A yellow horizon in every direction, perpetual twilight on all sides. Venus and Mercury speckled in the sky near the Sun amongst a handful of other bright stars. But what caught my breath and overwhelmed my chest was the sight that stood in place of the Sun:


A black hole. The darkest, blackest circle I've ever seen in my life. Blacker than you can possibly imagine. Around it, a ghostly white veil shaped like a Y or V, the corona of the Sun, the outermost layer of gas surrounding our nearest star that aligns itself to the Sun's magnetic dominant magnetic fields.


I must emphasize here: no explanation of this sight can prepare you for what you will witness. Words are not enough. You can easily describe a partial solar eclipse to someone. Not a Total Eclipse. No chance.


It's an overwhelming sensation that sends tremors through your body. In it, there is beauty. Awe. Joy. Wonder. Mystery. Ecstasy.


You have never felt the emotion you will feel in those brief moments. You may cry. You may cheer. You may hold your breath. You may hyperventilate. You may jump for joy. You may collapse to the ground and just stare at the sight above you.


Even writing this now, chills are going up my spine, and goosebumps are running down my arms.


At some point, a sprinkle of light returned to the edge of that black circle in the sky. Darkness brightened, the stars faded, the ghostly shape blanketing the black circle faded with them. It was over. The shadow of the Moon, traveling more than 1,000 mph across our location in Salem, had slid past us all standing there on the grass.


The light beams and shadows under the trees returned to their usual blotchy shapes. Daylight returned to normal, leaving no visible trace that our world had just gone dark only moments before. The crescent Sun waxed, growing minute by minute, until about 11:30am, the Sun was fully circular again.


I turned off my Sony Handycam that had dutifully recorded the entire 3-hour spectacle in the sky. I laugh whenever I think about this part: about 15 seconds after I stopped recording, the camera died. Happy irony.


Less than a year after watching the eclipse, I started Sidewalk Science Center. While it wasn't the reason for SSC's creation, it was certainly a factor in the long run, and why I'm sharing this with you now.


I'll never forget the cosmic geometry I witnessed that morning in Oregon. It contributed to my desire to live in the PNW. I promised myself I'd return, as the closing captions on the travel video I made for that trip seven years ago testify. Experiencing that eclipse is why I took a group of SSC educators and social media followers to the edge of Crater Lake, in Oregon, to witness the Annular Solar Eclipse on October 14, 2023.


Astronomers like to say "a 99% partial eclipse is a 0% total eclipse." If you are not in the shadow, you will not experience any of what I described above. The shadows will certainly change, and for anyone very, very close to the edge of the shadow, the light will slightly dim. But the rest? You will get none of it.


If you can make it to 99%, keep going into 100%.


Your life will change.


 

Alex Martin is the Executive Director of Sidewalk Science Center. He founded Sidewalk Science Center back in July 2018. Learn more about him here. 


 

Sidewalk Science Center's mission is to provide regular and reliable access to educational tools and resources in public spaces. Articles like this help us to create avenues for interest and engagement in scientific discourse, and we are dedicated to contributing accurate and reliable information from sources directly involved in the information we present.


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