Solar Eclipse, August 21, 2017


Tom Burns - Contributing Columnist

Weather permitting, a partial solar eclipse will be visible from central Ohio on Monday, August 21. At maximum, about 88% of the sun will be blocked by the moon.

At 1:04 p.m., a tiny bite will first appear in the sun’s disk. Mid-eclipse, when the largest portion of the sun is covered, occurs at 2:30. The eclipse ends at about 4:00.

To avoid eye damage, never look directly at the sun or use exposed film, smoked glass, a CD or DVD, or any one of the crazy items people use as filters as filters.

The only safe, inexpensive method for direct solar observation is a set of “eclipse shades,” which consist of a dark, black-plastic material mounted in a cardboard frame.

You can find them at all five Central-Ohio locations of Half Price books. Every purchase includes two informational brochures written by the staff at Perkins Observatory,

Alternatively, you can use one of the indirect methods described on the Perkin Observatory website:

For example, put a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. Project the sun’s image through the pinhole onto a second piece of white cardboard about two feet away. Don’t look through the pinhole.

In a 70-mile-wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, the eclipse will be total, blotting out the sun for as long as 2 minutes and 40 seconds. The closest locations to us run through Tennessee and Kentucky. Hotels in Nashville were sold out as much as two years ago in anticipation of the event, however.

In general, the farther west you go along the path, the greater your chances for clear skies.

You can find a map of the path of totality at

If you can get away, I recommend that you take a drive to get within the path of totality. I have seen much of nature, and my single experience of a total eclipse convinces me that it is among the most rare and beautiful sights that humans can behold.

Since before recorded history, humans have been stricken with awe and dread by what was for them the unexpected disappearance of the sun from the sky.

During an eclipse, the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, becomes visible.

The experience is intensely and uniquely unnatural – darkness at noon. Imagine looking at the familiar sun and instead seeing a hole in the sky surrounded by a dancing, silver halo.

And there is fear here as well, the kind normally reserved for wars and tax audits. It hearkens back to the ancient dread that the sun is being destroyed and will not return.

To the ancient Chinese, for example, an eclipse was caused by a giant dragon slowly swallowing the sun. The ancients did not know about chlorophyll and all that jazz. But they recognized that the sun brought life to planet Earth. Thus, in most cultures, the sun was a much-revered god.

Of course, they weren’t going to take its consumption as a midday snack lying down.

They climbed the highest hill they could find to get closer to the dragon. They beat on drums and cooking pots. They called the dragon obscene names. And they threw spears and shot arrows at the beast.

They did all this to frighten the dragon and get it to regurgitate the sun. The amazing thing about all their efforts is that they always worked. In that attempt they were always successful, they thought, because the moon always moved out of the way and sun always reappeared.

In lands where life isn’t such a struggle, we see kinder, gentler eclipse legends.

On the island of Tahiti, for instance, the natives saw an eclipse as the marriage of the sun and moon gods, where under cover of darkness, a considerable amount of hanky-panky went on.

The corona was the reflection of the sweet ecstasy of their lovemaking, and out of their union, the stars were born.

And so it is in reality. The sun’s corona is only about as bright as the full moon. As the sun is briefly obscured, the stars come out at midday.

Of course, we now know that solar eclipses occur because of the most wondrous of cosmic coincidences.

The moon is exactly the right size and distance from Earth to block the sun’s disk on the infrequent occasions that the sun, moon, and Earth are lined up precisely.

This time, the moon’s shadow passes over the United States from coast to coast. More than a hundred million Americans are one day’s drive from the event.

If skies are clear, more Americans will see the sun’s corona than at any time in our history.

If the weather gods are kind, I will be among those most fortunate and blessed souls.

I go to Stanley, Idaho, fully prepared to watch the sun and moon make love and to see their children shine in the dark, midday sky.

But along with sunblock and a solar-safe telescope, I think I’ll pack a spear or two.

You can never be too careful.

Tom Burns

Contributing Columnist

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.