T minus 800 days until the eclipse

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Friday, June 12, 2015

A few days ago I realized that today — June 12, 2015 — is a milestone of sorts: 800 days until the big event.

This photographer captured the March 20, 2015, total solar eclipse as it hung above the low hills near Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. // Tunç Tezel
Are you excited yet? Probably. What I mean by that is that you’re reading a blog dedicated to the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse, so it’s not a stretch to imagine where your interests lie. Here’s the thing, though. I’m not seeing that level of excitement in many other places.

So far, most media stories about the 2017 event fall into the “filler” category. Most teachers either don’t know about it or can’t imagine that their schools would let them do anything special during the eclipse. Most of the communities that will be affected haven’t even begun to think about the implications. And most people don’t have clue number one that such a major event is coming — or even why it is a major event.

We find exceptions to the above trends, of course. For example, the June 2015 issue of Astronomy magazine ran a story I wrote called, “First Look at the 2017 Total Eclipse.” Future issues of Astronomy will host increasing numbers of stories related to the 2017 eclipse.

Another positive exception is that groups of people who belong to astronomy clubs are starting to plan events — if they live along the center line — or they’re planning trips if they don’t. On that point, travel agencies like TravelQuest already are advertising and taking reservations for tours that couple historical, geological, or musical national highlights with the eclipse. And foreign travel agents have been buying out whole hotels for clients who want to see the event in the good old U S of A.

Yet another good sign is that this country’s top organization of professional astronomers — the American Astronomical Society — is sponsoring a national committee specifically to get us all ready for the eclipse. The committee has about a dozen members, and I’m one of them. Currently, we’re working on acquiring a National Science Foundation grant to underwrite a paid Coordinator of Activities.

One slightly negative thing that I’ve just started talking to people about is that those of us “in the know” have the tendency to overcomplicate things. Hey! Guilty as charged. See if you can relate: I’ve got a crazy amount of knowledge about — and experience with — eclipses, and I want to share it all with the unwashed masses. Problem is, most of those people just want the Cliff’s Notes version. OK, I can simplify it … mostly. But I have friends who cannot. Statistics, historical references, and jargon (can you say “saros”?) come shooting out of their mouths like bullets from a machine gun — and with pretty much the same effect: They kill any enthusiasm for the eclipse that the listener previously had built up.

Such over-complication is starting to take hold in the area of eye safety. Look, we all want people to view the eclipse successfully and safely. And we all acknowledge that looking at the Sun without an approved solar filter is dangerous and stupid. But do we really need a statement from the American Medical Association saying they agree with our wording? The AAS Task Force tried. Imagine peoples’ collective surprise when that group wrote back and said, “The AMA is not in a position to lend its support, or to endorse the messages you are drafting.” Yikes.

Funding is yet another subject we may want to be concerned about. The NSF probably will come through — and probably in multiple instances — but corporate funding sources so far don’t see what all the fuss is about. I worry that their contributions may come in so late that educators and groups who want to inform and serve the public will miss many opportunities.

Yeah, yeah, call me a worrier. 800 days may seem like a lifetime to you, but my first blog about the eclipse was at the 1,500-day mark — and 700 of those 24-hour periods already have flown past. Let’s make the next 800 count!

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