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On Monday, April 8th, an estimated 31.6 million people across North America can witness the solar eclipse’s path of totality as the moon blocks the sun, briefly turning day into night while passing over Mexico, the United States and Canada. 

As the world awaits this awe-inspiring celestial spectacle, we interviewed some of the foremost minds in astrophysics and astronomy. These scientists shared scientific insights learned from eclipses, their personal inspirations around this rare cosmic event, and origin stories of their insatiable curiosity for the cosmos. 

What was it like seeing a total solar eclipse for the first time? 

For Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Senior Project Scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope, it took place in the grandeur of a state park:

“I believe it was 2017. There was a total eclipse that went across the United States, and I went with my husband and my sister to a place in Missouri right along the path of totality,” said Wiseman, who grew up on a family farm in rural Arkansas where she could revel in the natural world.

“We saw [the eclipse] and it was fantastic. We were prepared with the special safety glasses, and it was partly cloudy that day, so we weren’t sure what was going to happen. But right on schedule, the clouds parted, and we experienced the entire event from the vantage point of a state park so we could hear the birds making unusual recognitions of the sudden darkness. And we could see the eerie glow all around the horizon, 360 degrees around us, which happens when the sun is completely covered by the moon, and yet there are still some reflections that happen in the distant atmosphere.”

For Dr. David Wilkinson, a theologian and astrophysicist, it was an otherworldly spiritual experience…outside of a fast food restaurant:

“I was fortunate to be in the total solar eclipse path in South Carolina in 2017. I was doing a few lectures around the US, and we were driving between two different places, and we stopped because we wanted to see the total eclipse. So, I was sitting outside a fast-food restaurant with a Diet Coke and the little cardboard [safe solar viewing eclipse glasses.]” 

“Some people hadn’t even quite realized what was going on. And then you see the colors of the sky change. You see the beautiful solar corona, the gases around the sun on the outside, and the dark shape of the moon. But you also hear almost a hush. And then one or two sounds that sometimes you hear at night. Insects, for example, just very briefly get confused. Sounds that you wouldn’t expect in the middle of the day.”

“There’s this kind of otherworldly experience, something different than our normal predictability of the world, our normal patterns. And you realize just how the ancients would’ve interpreted this, and this huge cosmic significance it would’ve been for them—because it was significant for me in 2017 at the tables outside of a fast-food restaurant.” 

For Brother Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, it was a feast for the senses:

“I remember seeing a partial eclipse when I was a kid… it must have been the June 20, 1963 event, when I was not quite 11 years old. I tried to see the total eclipse from Munich on August 11, 1999, but it rained on me during totality! So, the only full totality I have ever seen was the August 2017 eclipse; I was a guest of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky,” said Consolmagno, who grew up in Detroit but spent his summers on the shore of Lake Huron where he could enjoy the dark sky.

“What makes a total eclipse special is that it is an event that engages so many of the senses beyond just sight. You are enveloped in a sudden pool of coldness—that was very evident in August—which also affects the smells of vegetation as the sun goes away. Your ears are struck by an odd silence as the birds and animals act as if it were dusk. And, of course, the roads are suddenly free of traffic and diesel smells as everyone stops what they are doing to see the eclipse!”

More than the Sun and the Moon: A collective human experience

For Wiseman, it was a rare experience of humanity unified through humility and awe:

“Of course, we saw interesting solar activity around the edges of the moon as it was covering the sun, but we also experienced being with other people who had gathered in that same park and their astonished reactions. That was quite amazing, too,” said Wiseman. 

“Having that sense of humanity, being unified by something greater than ourselves, something we don’t control. Many people would describe it as a spiritual experience – something that, yes, we understand the mechanics of through science, and yet to really experience the impact of it on our senses, and unifying humanity just for those few minutes. That’s an experience that’s really unmatched.”

Consolmagno echoed this sentiment of human universality:

 “It’s a shared moment. It’s a shared experience. And the best thing is the sky belongs to everyone. It’s not tied to your religion, politics, or sports team. It’s something that everybody can experience,” said Consolmagno.

“You don’t often get to see total eclipses, but when you do, it reminds you and fuels you about how beautiful the universe can be. It reminds me of Mother Teresa’s religious experience in that you can live off it for years and years afterward. She had an experience as a young woman that carried her to India for the rest of her life. She wasn’t having that experience over and over again. She had it once. Reflecting on it reminds me of the famous definition of a poem, which is an overwhelming emotion recollected in tranquility.”

What do solar eclipses teach us from the perspective of science?

“Eclipses help us in scientific understanding in several ways,” said Wiseman. “One is that as the moon blocks out most of the photosphere of the sun, we are able to see the corona, the outer layers of the sun’s atmosphere, because we’re not blinded by the sunlight itself. The sun itself goes through cycles when, some years, it is more active with more ejections of material.”

“This year, the solar cycle is at its maximum, which means there’s a lot of this coronal activity. There are solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and a lot of activity on the surface of the sun. So, during a total eclipse, you can actually see some of that activity with your own eyes,” says Wiseman, adding that the professional solar telescopes that study the sun all the time are especially tuned into the total eclipse. 

“The other thing we learned is how the covering of the sun affects animal behavior here on Earth. So, interesting biological studies can be done about how animals sense lightness and darkness and how quickly they respond to those changes. And how do they respond to what is happening at a time they don’t expect in their circadian rhythms?” 

Consolmagno added, “The most famous [scientific] use of eclipses was in 1919 when Arthur Eddington observed a star whose light passed very close to the sun. He could only see the star because the light of the sun was blocked by the moon. But his measurements of how the sun’s gravity deflected that light was the first strong indication in favor of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.”

“The solar corona becomes easily visible during an eclipse. A Jesuit priest and astronomer, Angelo Secchi, was one of the first to photograph it. His work eventually showed a connection between solar activity and magnetic fields on Earth. There’s a NASA spacecraft that monitors the corona from space now; it is called the Sun-Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation (SECCHI) instrument!”

Reflecting on the wisdom of the ancients

“When I’m looking up the sky and the solar eclipse, I’m amazed by the inspiring nature of what’s happening. Secondly, I’m reminded of the religious traditions of those who look up at the sky and think in terms of the divine. But the third thing that’s going on in my mind is that the ancients, whether they be Babylonians or Chinese astronomers or others, kept careful dated records of when eclipses happened,”

said Wilkinson, adding that many people, including Durham University Professor F. Richard Stephenson, taught themselves different languages to read the records.

“As an astronomer, he used the records of solar eclipses to work out that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down, not by very much, but by a little bit. And the rate of it slowing down…That’s a wonderful bit of astronomy and mathematical science.”

Reflecting back on his own career, Consolmagno shared that the solar eclipse “is a reminder of why we got into astronomy in the first place. I was talking to somebody about how we observe. You can look at a flower or you can experience the flower by holding it and touching it and smelling it. And the eclipse is something you don’t just look at, it’s something that you experience.” 

Solar Eclipse 2024 Resources