CU professor calls total solar eclipse an experience like no other

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By Alissa Noe

Doug Duncan has seen his fair share of total solar eclipses during his career as an astronomer, but for the University of Colorado professor and director of Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium, the eclipse next week will be the closest one to hit near home.

“This is total eclipse No. 10 for me,” Duncan said. “I’ve seen them in China, South Africa, Bolivia, (the) Galapagos (Islands) and Mexico. Those are ones that come to mind.”

Although the eclipse around noon on Monday will be the first in the United States since 1979, Duncan said the phenomenon is far more common than one may think, and he’s made a career out of chasing them around the globe.

“There’s actually an eclipse somewhere on the Earth every couple of years, but a total part of the shadow is only about 100-mile-across circle and as the Earth turns, it kind of sweeps along. But unless you’re along that 100-mile-wide stripe, you’re not going to see it,” Duncan said.

This year, the U.S. will see a total eclipse stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, and all 48 mainland states will enjoy at least 75 percent coverage of the sun by the moon. The foothills area will experience about 92 percent coverage.

But unless one is willing to travel to Jackson, Wyo., or anywhere else in the 100-mile swath, eclipse watchers might not see much of anything spectacular.

“Turns out that 5 percent of the sun is equal to 20,000 full moons, so it’ll never get dark,” Duncan said. “You really have to make it to 100 percent.”

Although he’s seen his share of full eclipses, Duncan said the experience never gets old, and he has the same reaction every time.

“It’s like the end of the world,” Duncan said. “By the time the eclipse gets to like 90 percent, the sun loses its power. Let’s say it’s a clear day and you’re standing outside, usually you start to get really hot. Now that stops, so the sun is no longer powerful enough to make you sweat.

“As it gets up into the 95-97 percent, it starts to get weird. For one thing, instead of the sun
being a big light source, it’s now a very little one, so all of the shadows in the world become ultra sharp. Instead of diffuse lighting, like on a movie set, it’s spotlights. Everything starts to sharpen.

“And then, when it’s a couple minutes before totality, all the colors in the landscape change and they become silvery and kind of shimmery. It’s a little bit like snorkeling when you’re under the water and everything, but you’re not snorkeling and you know that. And you’re not on drugs and you know that, so why is the world going weird? It starts, I think, to put your subconscious on alert, like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on here? Is it safe? Is it dangerous?’”

Every time he’s seen the moon reach that 97 to 100 percent blockage of the sun, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He’s not the only one whose body involuntarily reacts that way, Duncan said.

“It goes by so fast, and if there are animals around right where you are, they all respond as if it was night,” Duncan said. “If you live near the equator, like the whales and dolphins of the Galapagos, every day of their lives is about 12 hours of light, except for this one day that we were there, and that’s why all of them surfaced and were swimming around, trying to figure out what was going on, because they had never seen anything like that.”

When the eclipse reaches 100 percent, Duncan said that viewers will get to witness something rarely seen by the naked eye, and something most wouldn’t be able to see without the aid of a specialized telescope.

“There’s a big black hole in the sky, blackest black you’ve ever seen, surrounded by pink flames and big silver streamers,” Duncan said.

While every eclipse varies in duration based on its location, Duncan calculated that this Great American Eclipse in totality will last 2 minutes, 20 seconds, about four minutes shorter than the longest one he’s ever seen.

The time difference, he said, depends upon where in the moon’s elliptical orbit the path lies.

“There is only one total eclipse experience, and no one that I have ever met that has seen a total eclipse says they’ll forget it as long as they live.”