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Experiencing Totality

group watching the solar eclipse

A reflection of the total solar eclipse of 2017

by Conor Bentley

Before classes started for 2017 Fall Semester, Westminster students and faculty set off to learn about astronomy and geology in southern Idaho. Professors Julia Kamenetzky (physics) and Tiffany Rivera (geology) took a group of 14 students to experience totality while perched upon an extinct volcano. The class was one of 68 teams across the United States participating in The Citizen CATE Experiment, an effort to capture an unprecedented 90-minute movie of the sun’s corona. In addition to viewing the eclipse, students read about the historical significance of eclipses in mythology, culture, and science. The professors asked the students to reflect upon their experience in a similar way. One student, Nate Wooldridge, shares his experience of totality:

“On the Monday of August 21, at 10:15 a.m., the moon first begins to cover the sun overhead of our class that is situated on top of a large tuff cone in Idaho. The event, aptly named first contact, gets a good cheer from the surrounding crowd and although it would be more than an hour before totality, this is when the strangeness of the day really begins to take shape. As time progresses, the strength of sunlight wanes and shadows become fractured and distorted. At a half hour before totality the light is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Colors are muted and although there is plenty of light to see, it feels as though the sun contributes no tangible warmth to the planet. So alien and unsettling is the atmosphere that I can’t help but feel as if I’m living through an episode of The Twilight Zone. I glance up at the sun after days of anticipation and study of the eclipse phenomena and there are just a few beams of sunlight left to look at. All of a sudden, the sun is obscured completely and a darkness sweeps out of the west and swallows the bluff and the land around us. The darkness is not total though, but more like that which happens right after the sun has dipped below the horizon for the night. I then turn my gaze to the sky to a scene so intense that I am unsure whether to be terrified or ecstatic or both. Where the sun had been a few minutes before is now a black hole ringed with streaming silver fire. It bends in great arcs and shoots off into the sky far from the edge of the black spot. I gasp for a little breath or maybe some words that can encompass what I am experiencing. Finding no competent words, I watch the cosmic light show overhead for the few fleeting minutes it is present until the first beam of sunlight escapes from around the moon. The return of the light is both the most exquisite part of the event and signals its ending. It calls up in me an urgency, and I howl at the moon and the sun and the sky as loud as I can just to let someone know how profound the moments is.

The time after the eclipse is worth mentioning just because it is almost as strange as the event itself. The best way that I can describe it is that everyone, just shaken from their normality by an event so utterly moving and exposing as the crossing of planets in such a sublime way, is more aware. You feel a little closer to the people around you or maybe just to the human condition itself. You understand why people spend their lives chasing these things and how utterly terrifying an eclipse would be if you didn’t know it was going to happen. Ultimately, what I would say to someone who has never seen a total eclipse (besides go see one you fool) is that you may understand exactly what is happening during a total eclipse, and may even have been planning to view it for months, but until you are standing directly under the moon’s shadow, you do not understand that it is so much larger than anyone could ever grasp while simply being just a shadow.”



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.