Hopkinsville, Kentucky billed itself as Eclipseville—it was the closest town of any size to the “point of greatest eclipse”. And on Monday, August 21 it was Eclipseville indeed.
In the later afternoon of Sunday, August 20, I was putting together my last post prior to eclipse day, and wondering whether the weather would be OK, because the forecasts were mixed. I got the post up on The Catholic Astronomer, and then my wife Tina and I went for a walk around central Hopkinsville to get some exercise in advance of Br. Guy’s talk at Sts. Peter & Paul church there. (If you are visiting The Catholic Astronomer for the first time, Br. Guy Consolmagno is Director of the Vatican Observatory, and The Catholic Astronomer’s Blogger-in-Chief.)
The program at Sts. Peter & Paul began with introductory remarks by Fr. Richard Meredith, who expounded upon the words of Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.
Day unto day pours forth speech;
night unto night whispers knowledge.
Then Sts. Peter & Paul parishioner Jim Creighton, who organized much of the church’s eclipse festivities, added a few words, and presented Br. Guy with an eclipse plaque carved from Kentucky cedar wood (and he gave Tina and me a plaque as well!). Next, Hopkinsville’s mayor, Carter Hendricks, welcomed Br. Guy, and presented him with a key to the city! Finally Br. Guy spoke. The topic was “Faith and Science”. The church was full, with over 600 in attendance and with people standing in the back. There were a lot of media present—click here for a CNS story on the talk. Br. Guy received two standing ovations. It was quite an evening for science. However, the sky, which had been clear most of the day, had begun to cloud up by the time the sun set. That was worrisome.
However, by the time we all got back to Lynne Hensley’s place Sunday night, the stars were out. Lynne, a Sts. Peter & Paul parishioner, retired teacher, and “gentlewoman farmer” (and, very importantly, a graduate of Hopkinsville Community College!) was hosting Br. Guy, Tina, and me at her farm. The farm was located on a one-lane road in Christian County, north-west of Hopkinsville, between Pennyrile State Park and the village of Cerulean—and just a few miles from the point of greatest eclipse. The Attilla Danko clear sky clock for Hopkinsville was firmly declaring that the weather would be good for the eclipse, and the event was now but 14 hours away.
Monday I was up with the sun. Lynne and I sat out on her patio, looking at clear blue Kentucky skies! This was good.
I set up my trove of equipment:
- A 125 mm Maksutov telescope with a full aperture solar filter (but with a balky mount)
- A piece of Shade 14 welder’s glass that had been sitting in my desk drawer since the 1990’s, and that I had edged with duct tape and had duct taped to a lanyard so I could hang it around my neck. (As Lynne said, “If you need it stuck: duct tape; if you need it unstuck: WD-40”.)
- Various eclipse glasses, cameras, and other stuff—all decidedly not fine quality material.
In addition, Br. Guy brought a fine pair of image-stabilized binoculars. These were outfitted with a pair of solar filters fabricated by Fr. Sabino Maffeo, S. J., an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory (who is in his 90’s). Those binoculars were one sweet set-up.
We all had some excellent breakfast, and with a few hours to go before the moon would touch the sun, Tina and I took a long walk/hike along the back roads. We were well away from both “the beaten path” and even “the road less travelled”, and there was minimal traffic, but here and there we found a few folks setting out chairs for the eclipse—pre-eclipse tailgate parties of a sort. The skies were clear.
As we were returning to Lynne’s farm, a Kentucky State Police car rolled out of her drive, followed by two SUVs. It was Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky. He had heard about Br. Guy being in the area, had called up Sts. Peter & Paul to ask where Br. Guy was, and had driven the Christian County back roads out to the farm, without being sure that anyone was even there, I think—cell service was having trouble, probably on account of the remote location and the large number of people in the general area. Fortunately Jim Creighton got through to Lynne a few minutes before Bevin arrived, so Bevin’s visit was not a complete surprise. Bevin dropped in, chatted; photos were taken with Lynne’s phone. They tried to observe the sun through the Maksutov, but could not on account of the balky mount (Br. Guy’s binoculars would have been better).
After the governor left there were about 30 minutes remaining before “first contact”. The sky was still clear, and it was getting hot. Large glasses of iced tea were poured. I got the Maksutov’s mount to perform acceptably. We started watching the sun. First contact was right on time, of course. Br. Guy’s talk had focused on how the universe is understandable and logical and calculable, and here was that on display, as the moon’s disk bit into the sun precisely at the time predicted by physics.
The sun was sporting a nice set of sunspots. They provided reference points against which to watch the moon’s motion. At those times when the edge of the moon was covering a spot, the moon’s motion was quite obvious. You could just watch the moon smoothly march across the spot.
None of us had ever seen a total eclipse before (Br. Guy had been to one, but it was clouded over) so our purpose was just to watch, not to do any science or even any real photography. Nevertheless, we tried a few shots through the Maksutov telescope using phone cameras. Br. Guy had the best success at this.
By the time the moon had covered a third of the area of the sun’s disk, the daylight had become noticeably different, and the heat less intense. We noticed images of the partially eclipsed sun that were projected by pinholes. Some of those pinholes were formed by overlapping leaves. Others were formed by my straw hat.
As totality drew near, we quit fooling with cameras and just focused on watching. It was not hot at all now. The sky remained clear, but toward the north-west the sky darkened and looked a heavy grey rather than blue, as though a storm were coming. As the moon moved across the last bit of the sun, it was interesting to watch the remaining sliver of sun grow not just slimmer, but shorter in its arc. I watched this through the telescope, and then saw that sliver begin to break into bits as the irregular edge of the moon started to cover the last bit of the sun. And then the sun was gone. Eye protection was cast aside, and there was the eclipsed sun, sporting a huge, cream-colored, three-cornered corona. Venus and Jupiter were plainly visible to the sun’s right and left, but none of the four of us in the “V.O. observing group” saw other stars. The big corona was too bright, I guess, or our eyes were too slow to adapt to the darkness. To the south we could see clouds illuminated by the sun with a golden light, as though it were sunset. The sky was not black, but a deep indigo, like crisp new blue jeans that have not been pre-washed—a color that went well with the creamy corona. We all burst into applause and shouts of appreciation.
I pulled the filter off the Maksutov and was rewarded with an awesome sight. The corona was streaming away from the sun—a structure of fine lines that was somewhat visible to the naked eye was very pronounced as seen through the telescope. There were some large prominences suspended off the edge of the sun. I have seen prominences before, through a Hydrogen-Alpha telescope at my college’s observatory, but this was completely different. Unfiltered, the prominences almost glittered in shades of pink and yellow and silver, like they were gold filigree illuminated by a glowing camp-fire. They were beautiful. The combination of them, the creamy streaming corona, and the black moon was more beautiful still. Tina, Lynne, and Br. Guy all took turns at the eyepiece—none of us looking for long, with only minutes of totality available. I got to be at the eyepiece in the last moments of totality, as the moon began to uncover the sun. I got a momentary impression of a pink edge—like a “grass” of short little prominences all around the sun, glowing even brighter closest toward the sun—and then a bead of brilliance burst through some lunar valley and I quickly looked away. I glanced up as Br. Guy called out a warning that totality was ending, and I caught a glimpse of the “diamond ring effect” before I got the welder’s glass up to my face. Lynne later swore that the whole totality could not have lasted more than 15 seconds, so intense was the action, but I had a camera on a tripod videoing her yard: the video showed exactly 2 minutes, 40 seconds, as predicted for our location.
With totality over, we watched the sliver of sun grow. Then we went into the house for some lunch. After lunch we caught the moon exiting the face of the sun. It was hot out now.
The total eclipse was overpowering in its beauty. Photos are merely pale copies of the real thing. I find the beauty of what I saw through the telescope to be scientifically challenging. Scientifically speaking, we explain what appeals to us, like ice cream, through some mechanism like this:
Fatty things were a great calorie source for our hungry distant ancient ancestors who were hunting and gathering on the savannah. Those among the hunter-gatherers who had a greater tendency to go for fatty food tended to survive and bear children and pass on their genes. And thus we find ice cream irresistible!
Yet what mechanism explains why those prominences, that corona, and that moon were as lovely as any triple-dip of cherry cordial, vanilla, and dark chocolate on a waffle cone? Why should there be beauty in the atmosphere of a star, in the boundary phenomena of a violent, gravitationally self-bound nuclear furnace that is so huge that the Earth is but a speck that it could swallow without effect? These are things that no distant ancient ancestor could ever see as I did, and that vanishingly few ancestors could ever see in any way at all. How do we evolve to see beauty in something that could not be seen, for all intents and purposes, until we developed the science of astronomy and the telescope?
I will be chewing on that question for a while, and hoping to come across a photo or drawing that captures the beauty of the Great KENTUCKY Eclipse of 2017 that I was so fortunate to see under clear cerulean skies from Hopkinsville-Eclipseville. It was quite a day for science in Kentucky.