With a total solar eclipse coming up on April 8, 2024, we ask Planetarium educator Talia what it
feels like to actually witness the Moon totally blocking the Sun.

We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at sciencequestions@mos.org.

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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we search for answers to the most breathtaking questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And you might have noticed that we have a total solar eclipse coming up on the calendar. April 8th, 2024, we're going to have the moon block out the light from the sun. This is only visible from a very small part of the Earth at a time for just a few minutes, but it's supposed to be the most breathtaking display in all of nature. Our visitors have asked all kinds of questions about the eclipse. And they also want to know what it actually is like to experience this. I have never seen a total solar eclipse. I hope to catch the one in April, weather permitting. But I'm joined by Talia today. Talia, thanks for coming back on the podcast.

TALIA: Oh, you know, I always love to talk about space, Eric.

ERIC: And you have seen a total solar eclipse.

TALIA: I did. I saw the one, the last great American Eclipse. So the one that happened in August of 2017. I was out in Oregon. And I saw that one. And the reports were not exaggerated. It was incredible.

ERIC: What is it like to experience a total solar eclipse.

TALIA: So first thing I noticed was, as it was approaching totality, it wasn't quite at totality. But the Sun was really almost gone. My lizard hind brain started to like send out 'alert, alert, alert, something is wrong'. Because the light got really weird. Right before the moon finished covering the sun in my mind, you know, primitive lizard hind brain was like, 'hey, nope, this isn't normal, pay attention'. And then totality happened. And you think you know what it looks like, because you've seen pictures of it, you know, you've seen photographs of a total solar eclipse, but it's like a photo of a rainbow. You know, it doesn't capture what is actually happening if you see the rainbow in person.

ERIC: I think that's one of the problems with trying to show people what it's like with a picture, because it's focused on the sun, which is blocked by the moon. So it looks like a big round hole in the sky. You can see those outer layers of the sun's atmosphere, the corona, streaming away, but like it's a 360, and up, view. What is it like to have it be like above your head, like suddenly you're in the planetarium and all the stars come out?

TALIA: It was...it's hard to describe. It's so otherworldly from anything that you're used to seeing in the sky, this picture that looks like a hole, you know. Like I when I was standing there looking at it, I thought: 'what would I think if I was an ancient human and I didn't know the science of what was going on? And this event happened in the sky?' I would have said it was a hole in the sky, that some God had just ripped a hole in reality, that's what it looked like to me with this glow of the solar corona around it. It was just like this border between worlds, it was really incredible. And the landscape. And what was really cool for me was I was near the edge of the totality path in 2017, which means there was mountains in the distance I could see that were still in sunlight.

ERIC: Oh, that must have been weird.

TALIA: It was really, really weird. It was really, really cool. But where I was it was dark.

ERIC: Because they have the, you know, total eclipse from the space station. And it's just like the western United States with a big round shadow on it that looks like someone's holding up a cutout or something. So to be on the edge of that, to actually see that. Did you get a sense of scale, like, that you are tiny?

TALIA: Oh, I felt very insignificant. But here's the thing. I'm a space nerd. So feeling small and insignificant due to the grandeur of the universe is like a really awesome thing for me. I really enjoy that. So I was I was shaking all over. I was so excited. I was so happy. I was so worked up about it that I was literally, my muscles were shaking all over as I was just, you know, I could say trembling but it was really also just sheer excitement at what I was getting to witness.

ERIC: These things last for sometimes a minute, sometimes up to five or six, how much did you get that time?

TALIA: I got slightly less than a minute because we were at the edge of the path of totality. It was very, very convenient for where we were staying. We just drove up the road a little bit and then we were in the path of totality.

ERIC: Did you have to make a plan, like, way ahead of time?

TALIA: No, we made it the night before. So we were at my sister's in-laws' house, which was just outside the path of totality. And my sister was there, and she was pregnant at the time. So it was really convenient for us to not have to go very far. And basically all we did is we drove into the path of totality and set up on the side of the road and I pulled out my solar binoculars. And what was kind of funny is at one point a cop car rolls up and kind of, you know, a guy rolls his window down. He's like, 'what are you doing?' And I was like, 'we're watching the eclipse! You want to come see?' And the guy who's driving the car was like, 'No, I'm good.' But his partner is like, 'I want to see!'. And he just leaps out of the car and comes over. And he's like, "are we allowed to look at the sun through binoculars?'. And I was like, 'I'm so glad you asked that question. These ones you can. This one is safe.

ERIC: So what was like to have to wait? I mean, how early did you get there and have to wait through the moon slowly blocking the sun, because that part takes like an hour or more? Was it, like, interminable to wait for that minute?

TALIA: I don't know what it was like for everybody else. I had my solar binocular setup on my tripod pointed at the sun. And I was so having so much fun watching the progression of the moon across the sun through these binoculars and seeing, you know, a bigger and bigger chunk get taken out of the sun. That was just really fun for me. So I don't know how it was for, you know, all the folks who are around me, but I had a great time.

ERIC: People have asked us what it's like to experience it. What about the sounds? There's lots of reports of like, you know, animals waking up and birds being quiet. Did you experience any kind of weird sounds or lack of sounds?

TALIA: I mean, I think that was part of, you know, the lizard hind brain going, 'something's wrong. Something's wrong.' Right before totality began. I didn't notice anything waking up, but like the bird sounds went kind of quiet. And it didn't go completely quiet. Like the birds were clearly like, 'wait, what?' You know, so it wasn't like it went silent. But definitely the sound changed for sure. And the temperature dropped to which was also interesting.

ERIC: So you can feel that?

TALIA: That's right. Yeah.

ERIC: I was here at the museum in 2017. And we had hundreds of people out with eclipse glasses on the front plaza. And it was like 70% eclipse. And it was like a normal day, like people walking by were like, 'what's that over there?' Because you have to block out so much of the sun before you even get to that weird feeling. And here in Boston, we're going to get more than that. This time, we're going to be up ahead of 90%. But we still won't get that totality. So you really have to go to that path to really see it.

TALIA: We are so frustratingly just outside the path of totality for the this 2024 Eclipse.

ERIC: So it sounds like it's an experience that you can't describe. So I guess there is no answer to this question other than, I guess you probably would recommend trying to go see one.

TALIA: I absolutely recommend it. If you have the opportunity to go see it. It is very difficult to describe. It was a very visceral feeling. It is very much you know, this is the universe smacking you in the face with how incredible it is, and you can't avoid it. I was so thrilled that I got to experience it. And the pictures do not do it justice. So if you haven't seen an eclipse in real life, then you haven't seen an eclipse.

ERIC: Alright, Talia, thanks so much for joining me and telling me all about what it was like to experience a solar eclipse.

TALIA: Oh, it was my very great pleasure, Eric. As always.

ERIC: For a lot more coverage on every aspect of the upcoming eclipse, visit mos.org/eclipse. And be sure to sign up for the Spacing Out newsletter so you never miss an amazing astronomical event. Until next time, keep asking questions.

If you liked this episode, be sure to check out:

What is it Like to Look Down at the Earth from Space?

How Many Moons Are There in the Solar System?

Does the Moon Rotate?

Theme song by Destin Heilman

Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)