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Driftless Dark Skies: Be Awed!

August 4, 2017 by John Heasley

I’m told that I use the word awesome a lot. I’m usually content enough with the everyday experiences of hiking in the Driftless Area, biking its back roads, and enjoying outdoor music and plays. But I love those moments of awe when they happen. I’ve been reading some of what psychologists say about awe. They describe it as occurring when we perceive a vastness larger than ourselves as we are taken out of the ordinary. They say that we are often transformed by the experience as our minds reshape a new view of our world. And I’m encouraged to read that awesome experiences often make us more grateful and generous. 

We have a chance to be awed on August 21 when there will be a total eclipse of the Sun across the United States. If you can travel to see totality, do it. It’s as close as Missouri or southern Illinois. I have never seen totality, but I read that it’s something worth doing at least once in a lifetime. We don’t normally see the Moon moving across the sky, but we will see it taking a bigger and bigger bite out of the Sun. As the skies and landscape darken, we’ll get to see sunlight leaking through the ridges on the Moon, the red glow of the chromosphere, and the wispy filaments of the corona. 

Bring the young people along. This has not happened before in their lifetime. The last chance we had to see totality in the continental United States was 1979. This is the first of several they will have a chance to see with more total solar eclipses happening in the U.S. in 2024, 2044, 2045, 2052, and even one in Wisconsin in 2099. It’s a very kid-friendly event. It’s easy to understand what’s happening (the Moon is passing between us and the Sun). You don’t need any special equipment beyond eclipse shades to protect your eyes. It all happens within three hours. Make a memory. Connect them with the cosmos. 

If you can’t make it to totality, then be awed by the partial eclipse happening in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun around 11:48. By 1:12, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends at 2:35. You can “party off the path” at many local libraries. Lots of activities. They will have eclipse glasses for safe solar viewing as we are wowed by the syzygy of Sun, Moon, and Earth. One way or another, be awed by The Great American Eclipse. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Shakespeare’s Eclipse

July 25, 2017 by John Heasley

Eclipses are an amazing coincidence. The Moon needs to orbit between Sun and Earth.  It can’t be too high or too low when it passes between. It needs to be the right distance so that it exactly covers the Sun. And we need to be on the right spot on Earth to stand under the shadow of the Moon and watch the Sun be covered up.

On August 21, the shadow of the Moon will cross the United States. If you travel to the 60-mile wide eclipse path that extends from Oregon to South Carolina, you will be awed by totality.  Closest places from our area are in Missouri and southern Illinois. Totality is something to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. If you can’t make it to totality, you can still experience a very cool partial eclipse right here in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun at 11:49. By 1:14, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends for us at 2:37.

Not only do we get a chance to say syzygy again, we also get to marvel at another amazing coincidence involving the two greatest Shakespearean playhouses. On October 2, 1605 (O.S.), a partial solar eclipse was visible over The Globe Theatre outside London from 11:32 until 2:03 (local time), almost the same time as the solar eclipse over American Players Theatre outside Spring Green. The Sun covered 88% of the Moon for Shakespeare’s Eclipse just as it will on August 21 for The Great American Eclipse.

Did Shakespeare see this eclipse? I hope so, just as he might have seen the lunar eclipse two weeks earlier on September 17. It’s challenging to establish biographical facts about Shakespeare, but he did refer to eclipses at least a dozen times in his poems and plays, most notably in his tragedies written around 1605. In King Lear, Gloucester sees a correspondence between heavenly events and the unraveling of the kingdom: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” As he confronts the horror of what he has done, Othello imagines a celestial event: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe/Should yawn at alteration.”

Whether you’re on the eclipse path or partying off the path, I hope you are awed by the coincidences of The Great American Eclipse next month.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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