Miller: Eclipse a shared experience on many levels
As late as Friday, I wasn't sure what I was going to do during the eclipse.
It's not like it snuck up on me. I've been a bit of an astronomy geek since I was a kid, and I have had this date marked on my calendar for years. The predictions of horrible traffic — which, as it turned out, were somewhat overstated — had put me off my original idea of driving down to Silver Falls State Park or another scenic setting on Monday morning to take in totality. But I still wanted to see it: the moon completely obscuring the sun, shutting out so much of its light that its corona, the massive cloud of plasma surrounding it, is visible with the naked eye.
Thankfully, I have family in Salem, and my grandmother was kind enough to say "yes" when I called her up and asked if I could drive down Saturday and spend the night at her house.
We sat together, with my uncle and her dog, and watched through our eclipse glasses as the moon crept across the face of the sun. The sunlight grew thin and pale, dimming to the intensity it is on frigid Mars, then dimmer still. Totality lasted a little less than two minutes and felt like a little more than two seconds; along with the lacy white ring of corona around the pitch-black new moon, stars and planets appeared in the sudden twilight.
At one point, my grandmother remarked, "It's an amazing world that God made."
I'm not very religious myself. I was raised Roman Catholic, and some of my relatives are Lutheran, but I identify as something closer to agnostic these days. But whatever theology, or lack thereof, to which you subscribe, there's something very beautiful in the knowledge that everything — the Earth, the moon and the sun, all the planets, all the stars, and "everything under the sun," to borrow a line from Pink Floyd — is in its right place in the vast universe, and sometimes, the cosmos align to give us a sight like Monday's.
Throughout the course of history, humankind has been driven by the desire to solve mysteries, answer riddles and know the unknown. That drive has led to moments of triumph — "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" — as well as tragedy. The so-called Age of Discovery captured the imaginations of Europeans and laid the foundation for what is now the United States of America to come into being; it also led to the obliteration of native peoples in the Americas, Australasia and Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, and an epidemic of species extinctions.
But there is something miraculous in the fact that an event that once petrified our ancestors is now celebrated by millions, not because its nature has changed but because we now understand it. There is something amazing in the thought that something so bewildering and incomprehensible can today be predicted by science and mathematics to the day, the hour and the minute even millennia into the future. There is something incredible in the notion that this phenomenon once thought to be some sort of divine punishment is now interpreted as a sign of the wonders of God's creation.
It's going to take some time for me to figure out what the eclipse — beyond being very, very cool — really meant to me. But maybe the most meaningful thing for me is that we — by which I mean an entire continent — experienced it together. Depending on where you stood, or what viewing method you used, you saw it a little differently. But for a day, it transfixed us. Our attention wasn't out of fear. It didn't surprise us. It occurred as predicted, we understood it and we celebrated it.
Now, if only we could come together on something happening beneath our sky.
Mark Miller is assistant editor of The Times.