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August 21, 2017 1:21 PM

Why Almost Nobody in America Recalls a Total Solar Eclipse

Millions of people in America seem to recall seeing a total solar eclipse once, or maybe a couple of times, some years ago. It rings a bell they say. But the specific eclipse memory they describe is always fuzzy.


What those millions of people are actually recalling is not a total solar eclipse because nobody forgets a total solar eclipse (it’s like forgetting you climbed Mount Everest once). What those millions of Americans are actually recalling is their experience seeing a partial solar eclipse—--not total—--and there’s truly no comparison between those related but incomparable events.


A partial eclipse, all witnesses agree, is merely of interest when it happens. Astronomers on that day inform us we should take notice of the partial dimming of daylight. But we’re not impressed when it happens. We are instructed to build pinhole cameras to safely view the projected image of the sun and observe how the moon covers a portion of it. The crescent image we see on paper looks exactly like a partial moon. Again we are not impressed. It all seems so mundane. We decide we non-astronomers do not share the interest of the true astronomer.


Years pass and we recall the experience faintly. It might ring a bell.


So why do astronomers expect us to get hysterically excited about the two, total solar eclipses that will cross America in 2017 and 2024?
Let’s start with the recent solar eclipses in America and the fact almost nobody in America has ever witnessed a total solar eclipse. During the past 50 years, the United States mainland has been touched by the path of a total solar eclipse just twice. On March 7, 1970 a total solar eclipse passed along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Virginia. But heavy clouds obscured the sky along the narrow path of totality and gray skies--—darkening to black, then returning to gray--—were the only evidence of a total solar eclipse.


It was memorable, but disappointing.


Then, on February 26, 1979, a total solar eclipse passed from the Pacific Northwest coast into Manitoba, Canada. Generally cloudy skies in the Pacific Northwest prevented many of those residents from seeing that eclipse. A few people in Montana witnessed the total eclipse where clouds momentarily cleared, and people in the clear, midday darkness were awestruck by the greatest event they had ever witnessed.


That’s it. Nobody else anywhere in the mainland U.S. has seen a total solar eclipse during the past 50 years.


So why do millions of Americans think they recall seeing an eclipse? It has to do with the areas of partial-eclipse coverage. A weak shadow of the moon covers a vast area of the Earth’s surface during a total solar eclipse. Millions of people witness the mildly interesting but forgettable decrease in daylight. The comparatively thin band of totality in the center of that wide, light shadow is where all eclipse-watchers want to be. It’s the only place to experience what is truly unforgettable.
The bottom line is that anyone within that vast area where the eclipse is merely partial will never understand what people in that narrow band of totality will understand. Witnesses of a total solar eclipse--—astronomers and non-astronomers alike—--agree there is, without exception, no greater natural wonder on Earth.