Lights Out

I don’t have a bucket list. Instead, I try to take advantage of every opportunity for unique adventures that life sends my way. Exhibit A was my trip to the top of the Washington Monument. My work with the Space Foundation had taken me to Washington D.C. smack dab in the middle of Operation Desert Shield. Since it was off-season and people were afraid to fly due to terrorist threats, D.C. was devoid of tourists. While walking across the Mall, I noticed that there was no line in from to the Washington Monument, so I decided to peek inside. The elevator operator had three people in his car and asked if I wanted to ride to the top. I said, “Sure.” Fifteen minutes later, with photographic proof of my visit to the Monument, I continued on my way to a seminar. In a few minutes, I had accomplished what most people have to stand in line for many hours to do.

Thus, I found myself on August 20th, 2017 in a grassy field outside a church in Alliance, Nebraska waiting for the total eclipse. The cost of the trip to see the eclipse was about a hundred dollars. Some eclipse hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to see one. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. The next day, my youngest son and I packed up our camping gear and drove to a spot outside of town to await the celestial event of the century. Right on time, we saw the moon start to cover the sun, and for the next hour we watched intermittently, using our special glasses. Some people near us watched the sun the whole time. We did not. First, because we didn’t trust the glasses to provide complete protection, and second because we wanted to experience what our ancient ancestors had gone through.

Having that connection to other people–past, present, and future–is an important component to the theme of my life, if it can be said to have a theme. Lacking special glasses, ancient people would have seen what we saw when we observed our surroundings instead of our star. The landscape slowly became darker, even though the sun was still too bright to look at. Daytime shadows remained even as the light faded from the sky. The air felt strange, and a whistling wind became noticeable. Then, without warning, the light went out. There was a black hole where the sun was. A white irregular-shaped cloud, the corona, surrounded the black hole in the sky. Stars were visible, but there were still shadows that didn’t lengthen the way shadows usually do as night approaches. Every part of the experience was other worldly in that nothing we perceived matched our collective memories.

People clapped to show their appreciation. Very odd . . . like applauding a rainbow, or a flower blooming. But I understand. It was a magnificent sight, something every human being should experience if they can. While not life-changing, it was worth the trip. I couldn’t help but wonder as we returned home how many people have experienced a total eclipse of the sun? When did our ancestors first look up at that hole in the sky and worry about whether the sun would return? After too short of a time, the light came back on and we needed our glasses again. A giant cosmic switch had turned off for two and one half minutes and then turned back on. What a relief that must have been for our ancestors.

Looking at the sky and wondering what the heck was going on was the beginning of formal science. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites, et al. studied the sky for clues as to future events. The ability to predict lunar eclipses and flooding of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers allowed the priests to escape the dreary work in the fields. Observing, recording, and successfully predicting celestial events gave the priesthood great power. But solar eclipses usually caught them by surprise since the pattern is too complex to discern without the proper understanding of lunar, Earth, and solar orbits. And the penalty for their failure was usually death. The Mayans and Aztecs were particularly brutal in handing out this punishment.

The surviving priests redoubled their efforts to understand and therefore predict solar eclipses. Astronomy was the first true science, and now we can predict eclipses a hundred years in advance. We still do not understand many things about the interaction of earth, moon, and sun, but the interplay of their shadows is well understood. How ironic that scientists who successfully predict one of the scariest events in human history are ignored, berated, and even attacked for using the same methodology to predict climate change.

Universities and government agencies are losing their funding and therefore science jobs because they have the audacity to take on the fossil fuel industries. The same people who successfully predicted Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, thus saving hundreds if not thousands of lives, are ignored or attacked when, using the same instruments and measurements, they connect the severity of these storms to fossil fuel use. In Florida, legislators have even passed a law forbidding state officials from mentioning climate change, global warming, or sea level rise. South Carolina has a similar law.

It is incredibly ironic. Early scientists were punished for failing to make accurate predictions about events, which, although scary, had no real impact on life. Now, scientists are punished for making inconvenient but accurate predictions about something that has life and death consequences. As millions of people sit in the darkness created by these two storms, one has to wonder: what will it take for enough people to see the light?