Eclipse Musings

The Great American Eclipse of 2017 has come and gone.

A year ago, I would have said that I expected to spend today in the path of totality, thanks to the fact that my father-in-law happens to own some suitably-located property in SE Nebraska.  Alas, for a variety of reasons my wife and I concluded several months back that it wasn’t going to be practical for our family to journey to Nebraska for today.  I was pleased, for my kids’ sake, that my ex-wife picked up the slack and decided to take the kids to the path of totality near St. Louis; sounds like they had excellent weather and a great eclipse-viewing experience.

My youngest kids are only slightly older than I was during the last total solar eclipse visible in the continental US, the eclipse of 1979.  I was an elementary school student in London, Ontario, where the maximum coverage was roughly 80%.  I vividly remember our class being shuttled to the school gymnasium so that we could all watch the live CBC feed from Winnipeg, which was in the path of totality.

As for me today, I was in Minneapolis, where sunny weather in the early morning was replaced by cloud cover at midday.  I wandered outside at what ought to have been the maximum eclipse period, which for Minneapolis was only 83% coverage.  Unfortunately it didn’t feel much different than a cloudy day, the sun being largely obscured by clouds.  Ah well.

For me it’s hard to think about eclipses without thinking of two pop culture touchstones.

One is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” – or, as I refer to it, “The Nova Scotia Song”:

Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
Well, you're where you should be all the time...

An interesting piece of trivia I recently learned from Wikipedia is that there is apparently some ambiguity regarding which eclipse Carly Simon is to referring here!  Both the eclipse of 1970 and the eclipse of 1972 were visible from Nova Scotia, and the song was released about four months after the latter but purportedly had been written in 1971.  Personally I think that the song most likely refers to the 1972 eclipse, since one would have had to fly to Nova Scotia (or parts further north) in order to be in its path of totality, whereas the 1970 eclipse was visible throughout the US Eastern seaboard.  (And this lyric is in the final verse, which one could imagine to have been added to the song after the rest had been written.)

The other is Isaac Asimov’s classic short story “Nightfall”.     It was once named the very best sci-fi short story written prior to the introduction of the annual Nebula awards in 1965; and I for one would not quibble with that choice, although I recognize that there are some who consider it overrated.  It certainly captured my imagination when I first read it as a teenager, and remains vivid in my mind these many years later.

For the benefit of those who’ve not read it – “Nightfall” is set in a planetary system that involves one planet and six suns, and where darkness is unknown because at least one of the six suns is always in the sky.  The planet has a human-like intelligent race, whose scientists have recently made two interesting observations.  The first, from archaeologists, is that ruins suggest a significant cyclical pattern, with civilization being destroyed by fire approximately every 2000 years.  The second, from physicists who only recently have developed a theory of gravity, is that in order to completely explain orbital movements one would need to hypothesize the existence of a previously undetected planetoid – and furthermore, once every 2000 years, there would be an extended period of time where none of the six suns were visible, with 5 having set and the 6th being eclipsed by the planetoid…

Although I’ve never seen anything to suggest this is actually true, I have a pet theory that the final verse of the Billy Joel song “Two Thousand Years” was inspired by “Nightfall”:

And in the evening
After the fire and the light
One thing is certain: Nothing can hold back the night
Time is relentless
And as the past disappears
We're on the verge of all things new
We are two thousand years

Ah well.  Enough eclipse musings for today.  Time to start the countdown for the eclipse of 2024, whose path of totality includes where my parents live in Eastern Ontario!