I Do Not Fear Missing the Solar Eclipse

The great solar eclipse of North America has gotten a lot of publicity recently, and rightly so.  It is a script written for movies, a stark event to be witnessed by large areas of a large country.  Everyone from the professional astrophysicist to the completely uninitiated layman will appreciate it.

There is just one small hitch though – the weather.  Cloud cover may potentially block some or all of the eclipse.  This is not unusual for an astronomical affair, with the main casualty here being the lost opportunity due to the infrequency of this particular one’s chance.  The last solar eclipse in North America was over ninety years ago.  The next will be in seven.  After that, likely none of us today will be alive for the solar eclipse of 2099.

Last year, in May 2016, was the latest transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun.  This too is a rare event, though with a frequency of about once every 13 years.  While location on Earth is important, there is still a decent chance you can witness a Mercury transit over the course of 30-40 years.

I was in a prime location for the Mercury transit and had a full seven hours to observe it.  Unfortunately, the clouds that day were like a mockery from the gods, with the densest cover short of a severe thunderstorm.  My days of preparation and planning with telescope and solar filter and camera were fruitless.

Now being days away from the August 21st eclipse, I watch the weather forecasts for Monday like a hawk.  Currently they foretell party cloudy, muggy, with a chance of a thunderstorm, but with an uncomfortable encroachment of rain first in the evening and now late afternoon.  In my area, the eclipse will be at its peak around 13:20 and over by 14:45.

Will I be disappointed if the weather does not cooperate?  Absolutely.  Fortunately, there are a few mitigating perspectives.

First as a practical matter, cloud cover does not necessarily mean the eclipse will not be observable.  The Sun is very powerful and can pierce a variety of cloud formations.  I have taken pictures of star and planets through cloud cover when they were invisible to the eye alone, and have imaged the Sun through clouds as well.  Clouds can actually provide an artistic effect through a solar filter when imaging.

The second is a much longer perspective.  I hope those unfamiliar with astronomy take this as an opportunity to begin their own personal explorations of the cosmos.  A solar eclipse it just one event, but there is so much more to see, so much more to wonder at!  Every clear night offers something spectacular if you know how to observe the sky.

The Moon, the planets, meteors, nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, binary stars, constellations.  Conjunctions, oppositions, Jovian moon transits.  They are all there, if not all the time then at least for long durations annually, every night for the taking.

This will also be a useful opportunity to push the cause of light pollution.  Though the wonders of the cosmos are out there, too much of our planet is plagued by the sickly orange sky glow that ranks with any other pollution source.  Few people know about it, as it is not easy to realize, but artificial lighting at night distorts ecosystems.  If you don’t believe me, try sleeping with your bedroom light on, every night.

So even if the weather forces me to miss the eclipse, I know it will not be the end-all, because of all the amazing things in the sky and all the other astronomical events, including eclipses, to come.  The clouds cannot win every time!

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The Light Prison

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I am a prisoner.  My confinement is not built of walls or fences or gates, but derives from a byproduct of civilization taken for granted.

I see my prison everywhere I go.  It is in the streets, on buildings, emanating from vehicles, even on ourselves and within our pockets.  Looking up to the open sky should bring me solace, but it only reinforces why I know of this prison at all.

I see the telltale signs throughout the day, but the prison’s constricting grasp radiates most fiercely at night.

My prison hinders me, and billions of others, from fully engaging with the greatest physical medium.  It stifles imagination and stunts creativity.  It has created a tragedy of the mind, pushing us to believe in existence merely of the lands and clouds.  Severing our connection with the cosmos limits our potential and halts wonder, impacting even our perspectives on philosophy and Humanity’s enduring search to understand the Divine.

Mankind built this prison, certainly unintentionally, but Man bears responsibility for its upkeep and expansion.  Our continued, collective ignorance reinforces our detention.

It is a prison made from light, sourced from every construct.  From the backyard porch to parking lots.  From street posts to the tallest skyscraper.  Even automobiles and trains.  Anything that emits unshielded photons spilling into the empty sky beyond its intended illumination target contributes to the light prison.

We know our prison from the orange, sickly glow protruding across the horizon.  If you are lucky, this veil has its limitations, for when looking up, you shall see a wisp or more of the true freedom we are being slowly impeded from.

The prison is, ostensibly, pollution.  We have conquered or controlled so many forms of pollution, yet the prison of light continues to grow seemingly unabated.  Perhaps because we cannot smell it, nor tangibly observe a sludge byproduct, is why we continue to ignore the single type pollution that permeates every square measurement of society.  But it is pollution nonetheless, harming ourselves, our environment, and all life that depends on the eternal cadence of dawn and dusk.

We are meant to live in day and rest in night.  Some creatures thrive in the darkness.  The light prison, built in barely a century, distorts all of nature’s ecology, confusing rhythms forged through millions of years.

Acknowledgement of the existence of the light prison is not a call to Armageddon.  We need light, and it is a testament to our intellectual progress that we can bring light to the encompassing darkness with such ease.  What is needed is a societal understanding of both the existence of light pollution and the modest steps we can take to nullify its effects.

Should there be a goal?  Yes, and it is simple.  The the Milky Way in its entirety would be a stretch, but children in even the most populated urban areas should be able to see a night sky with thousands of stars, not just the Moon and Venus a handful of the brightest stars.  The goal is very plausible with better planning and foresight, utilizing prudent techniques to control it.  Architects should incorporate light-shielded designs into buildings and constructions of all varieties.

The light prison will never be deconstructed entirely, but through the spreading knowledge of its existence, and understanding the simple task to contain it, shall we and all of the Earth benefit from the return of the true night and the window to the cosmos it provides.  We will then no longer be prisoners, but proud stewards of a genuine planetary cause.