Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Total Solar Eclipse at Bryan College

At the suggestion of one of my old college roommates, I returned to the town where I went to college for a long weekend as it was in the path of totality for the solar eclipse.

I had read in the media like The Washington Post and some of the tech press that totality is worth the hype and distinctly different from a partial solar eclipse. I had an interest in talking to some people at my alma mater anyway, so even if the weather did not cooperate, I considered it worth the trip.

The Washington Post traffic blog also suggested that traffic heading toward locations in the path of totality was expected to build significantly starting 48 hours prior to the eclipse itself, so I made the 9-hour drive on Friday. (I had not checked to see what the traffic forecast was for the day after, and I expect I would have spent less time driving back today than I did yesterday. It was interesting having some of the traffic experience though: different license plates, etc. I noticed a lot of cars from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.)

The eclipse in Dayton was from approximately 1 to 4 PM with totality from about 2:32 PM to 2:34 PM. I set a couple alarms on my phone to help warn me and others around me when it would be the safe time to view the sun's corona without any solar glasses. It did not disappoint.

The college had a presentation in its auditorium during the early part of the eclipse. The entrance has glass doors that seem to have a polarized film that helps reduce how much brightness makes its way into the lobby. Distinctly absent upon leaving the building was that normal sense of the sunlight on the ground being really bright. On that nearly cloudless day the outdoors continued to feel like I was behind some kind of polarized light protection even though I was not indoors or wearing sunglasses. It was really cool. At one point as we got close to totality, that effect made some clouds on the horizon look like the color of dark storm clouds.

Means for safe eclipse viewing easily abounded. Several people had brought every day items with small holes in it. Even a few Ritz crackers did the job of showing the eclipse in the shadow. Crossing one's hands so that one's fingers formed small spaces for light to pass through and shadows to form also worked well, though the eclipse form in those shadows was less clear. One of the coolest and by far most abundant methods of seeing the solar eclipse before and after totality was through the trees. Instead of normal spots of light on the ground that had come through the leaves, they were all crescents the shape of the eclipsed sun.

The amount of daylight around us felt surprisingly full even with most of the sun's light blocked by the moon and only a crescent sun visible through solar glasses. It was not until about 3 minutes before totality that it really got much darker much faster. You could hear and sense the anticipation suddenly building among the crowds that had gathered around campus. Solar glasses were still necessary even with only a tiny sliver of the sun visible.

Then totality came. A cheer went up from the crowd. I later heard that others down the hill and even several miles down the road could hear the cheer from campus. This began the brief period of time when it was safe to view without glasses. It was quite the sight, and I looked up at it several times during totality.

There are a lot of things one could possibly observe during totality, and those two minutes go by quickly, so I am sure I did not do them all, and obviously those I heard about after the fact. My first observation would be that calling totality “darkness” or like night would be to way overstate the effect. It was more like twilight just before sunrise or after sunset. Yes, stars appeared; no, I could not pick out any constellations. There were also a couple spots with bright red lights hanging in the sky. Someone suggested it was a drone.

Another person was later disappointed he forgot to look around at the horizon for the 360-degree sunrise effect. I am thankful my friends had positioned themselves near one of the highest points in a campus common area, so I had looked around the horizon from there. That kind of horizon sunrise effect is pretty accurate if you can imagine what the horizon would look like just before sunrise without the sun expected to rise from any particular spot. Some of that may also have been the effect described earlier of being able to see the edge of the moon's shadow hitting the ground. Considering that shadow was moving at 1,000 miles per hour, the window of time to see the edge of that shadow was even shorter than the time of totality in that shadow.

Once totality was passed, the crowds thinned out rather quickly. There was much less interest in staying around for the rest of the partial eclipse. I got into several conversations with the stragglers. One group of Asian women had gone to college in the Maryland area, and some of them now lived and worked in Atlanta. One of them worked in mechanical engineering for Coca-Cola. Another flew in from the northern Virginia area and then drove to campus. They had looked at the forecast and cloud cover and while they originally had planned on seeing it in Nashville, the clouds there chased them east. They looked for a college campus in the East Tennessee area that looked clear and found Bryan. More than once I was asked about the distinctives of Bryan College, and I told them about it being a small Christian liberal arts college with a focus on a biblical worldview in all subjects and disciplines.

Another guy I met after the eclipse was over was packing up his telescope eclipse projector apparatus. He had driven in from New Jersey and found kindred spirit with having the same name as the college, even if the spelling was different.

The college admissions office had set up a water bottle concession stand near one of its larger open spaces. While the admissions director normally knows or at least recognizes everyone on campus, he said that he did not recognize most of the people that had gathered.

When the school first noticed their unique geographic positioning with respect to the eclipse, their first thought was to invite a few school groups to view the eclipse on campus. As the event got closer, they extended their invitation more broadly to the public. Based on interactions I had with people, I think a lot of them would have showed up anyway!

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