I am having trouble separating out my emotions after today’s events, and even figuring out if I should count it towards my 50by50 list. I guess I should give a bit of context first, before I get to the roller coaster part.
Unless you have been living under a rock, or are a member of Trump’s cabinet, you likely saw the gazillion posts about the eclipse. What you probably didn’t see was any reference to the fact that eclipses happen approximately every 18 months somewhere on Earth, this one just happened to go through the centre of the US and thus became the EVENT OF THE MILLENNIUM. Or some such nonsense. So, yes, there was an eclipse, and the path of totality was across the U.S. Here in Ottawa, we were likely to experience somewhere between 61% and 68% overlap, depending on which scientist was doing the calculation.
Now, if you’ve read my blog, you know that I’m into astronomy, and you might therefore think I was super excited about the eclipse. I wasn’t. Honestly, eclipses don’t do much for me in the abstract. The idea of driving hundreds or thousands of miles to see a total eclipse for 2.5 minutes, if the weather cooperates, was tantamount to insanity.
I like the moon, I like the planets, I’m keen on certain deeper space phenomenon, but usually when it comes to observing the sun, my reaction is often “meh”. I do have a full solar filter, so I can do full observation. I even took some shots of sunspots on Sunday, just to try it out.
It’s interesting, but not as cool to me as most of the moon or seeing Saturn. Mostly I got the filter to try it out, and I trot it out from time to time when I hear people mention sunspot activity or just to give myself a chance to use it during the day if nighttime hasn’t been cooperating for the weather. But I’m not a keen solar observer.
And some fans of astronomy — les maniacs d’astronomie if you’re into french — get super-excited even when the moon occludes (eclipses) a planet or a star, or when there are conjunctions of one planet or moon near another celestial body. Again, for me, it’s more “meh”.
So I had very low expectations for the eclipse today. Back in May, I thought, “Hmm, perhaps I could take the day off and take Jacob” to wherever the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Ottawa Chapter) of which I am a member would be doing their likely outreach event, which as it turned out was at the Museum of Aviation and Space. I wasn’t super keen, but he enjoyed his first star party in June, and it wasn’t like I was going to have to drive all the way to Wyoming or anything. So I did think about it.
Which is how the roller coaster started. I was thinking of putting it on my 50by50 list, doing the day thing with Jacob, low expectations but a learning event for all of us. Then we scheduled Jacob for Lego Robotics camp this week, which would mean I’d have to pull him out and he’d miss part of the camp. Was it worth it, yes/no? A consideration.
Then I got my french exam scheduled, and while I hoped it would be in early September, it came back as August 25th, which puts me on french this week. So I can’t really afford to take the day off to do astronomy, I need the practice so I can be as ready as possible on Friday. I wasn’t too disappointed to miss it, but more disappointed that Jacob would miss it.
However, when I was at the RASC meeting in June and at the one last week, people were handing out the little viewing tools (not the glasses with arms, but little cardboard slats with the filter in them), and through the varying avenues, I somehow ended up with three. One for me, one for Jacob, one for Andrea. But I was still wondering if I should take the afternoon off.
On Friday, I spoke to my french teacher about it, and she was at least willing to go outside at that time, and I thought, “Well, might as well”. I gave the other ones to Jacob and Andrea, and we were all going to be in separate places. Jacob had his at the sports camp today, and initially it looked like they would let him try it at the break, but in the end, the City of Ottawa decided the risks were too high for the kids, and everyone was kept inside. Unless I wanted to come pick him up, again the same question.
I debated taking my french teacher, picking up Jacob, and then trying to get to the Museum for the high point. It was a thought, but again, my expectations weren’t very high for my own personal enjoyment, and it was only partial anyway. Plus there’s a full one coming in 2024. The logistics were too tight for time, and I decided not to go. And I’m kicking myself for that decision, at least in part.
Because I went outside with my french teacher, crossed the street, put the lens in front of my eyes, and looked up. And was blown away. It is so basic, so simple, so primal that it was almost breathtaking. I couldn’t believe how well the filters worked or how awesome it looked. And then a funny thing happened.
My teacher looked and was blown away too, and that was almost as sweet. Then other people walking by, random people I didn’t know, were looking over to see what we were doing, and I asked them if they wanted to look at the eclipse. And they would come over, shyly, curious, almost timid. Kind of like, “Really? You’ll let me look? You don’t mind?”. And then “Oh, wow, that’s amazing!”. Then they would hand it back gushing, and I’d hand it to the next person. I had people LINING UP spontaneously, “Can I try too?”.
I didn’t have a scope. I didn’t have a bunch of glasses to hand out. I wasn’t doing outreach for the club. I just had a single filter. And about 50 of us used it over the course of about 30 minutes or so. People tried to take a few photos with their cell phones and the filters (heck, some tried it without the filter, which is definitely NOT recommended), but more importantly, some of them were using their phones to call colleagues upstairs in the office towers to come down and see this.
I wasn’t in a high traffic area, I was just in front of a building, looking through a gap between two other buildings. The shared experience of seeing people completely delighted in seeing something so innocent, so pure, so primal, was awesome. Everyone was like a little kid. This “free” event, you could just look. Somebody jokingly suggested I should charge a dollar to view, which is the complete opposite of the experience I was having.
I’ve experienced some of that at star parties, but this was like a pure hit of outreach crack. So simple and so immediate. And then the guilt hit.
Because while Andrea experienced the exact same thing on the other side of the river with her filter (see image below), Jacob never got to see it. He had to be inside. And I didn’t expect it to be that good, so I didn’t go pull him out. And I wish I had.
Yet it wouldn’t have been all partial sunshine and roses, for a completely INSANE reason. I would have picked him up and headed for the museum. Not realizing that the simple outreach program that was underway was overwhelmed with response.
If someone asked me to guess, I would have estimated 500 people at the museum. I know that is a bit low, but I would have thought of it as partly location (a bit farther out), it’s through the week when people are working, and our star parties churn out 300 people on a good night.
Instead, current estimates are that they had closer to 10,000 people. Yes, 10,000. I would have never made it to the museum. There were traffic tie ups all the way down the parkway, the police had to be there to direct traffic and were not happy with the semi-organized chaos. The eclipse period didn’t start until after 1:15 p.m., and yet by 11:00 a.m., the line-up was out of sight past the end of the parking lot. They started handing out 2800 viewers at noon, and even restricting them to one per family, they were gone within minutes. People were trying to get them all around town this past week too, and there were none available.
Whatever I do for 2024, it will NOT be with an organized group doing outreach. Wow.
There are a lot of photos on the net, some videos, all amazing. Yet our local Doug George (who taught the course that the Ottawa Carleton continuing education program used to offer) went all the way to Oregon, and sent back a link of some full eclipse shots, a small handful that were amazing.
So, in the end, mixed emotions for the day. It was unexpectedly awesome for me, I just wish I could have shared it with Jacob.