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How the total solar eclipse will steal your heart

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse in the US is the most accessible in decades. But take it from Mr. Eclipse, once you've seen one, you'll want to see another.

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Fred Espenak was serenaded by crickets during a total solar eclipse in Zambia in 2001. 

Fred Espenak

A total solar eclipse that stretches from coast to coast in the US, the first in nearly 100 years, is coming Aug. 21.

For the truly lucky, at least 12 million people, the eclipse is coming to them. People who live in the 70-mile-wide path of totality that spans 14 states only have to put on eclipse-viewing glasses and step outside to watch the moon block out the sun.

The rest of us are going to have to work a little harder. We're going to have to go to it.

Fred Espenak is the type of person who doesn't wait for a total eclipse to come to him. For nearly 50 years, he's traveled to every continent -- even Antarctica -- to witness the natural wonder he rates "1 million" on a scale of 1 to 10. The retired NASA astrophysicist met his future wife during an expedition to India. He was serenaded by crickets during an eclipse in Zambia.

Espenak, 65, is known as Mr. Eclipse, but he didn't earn his nickname by chasing after and photographing these cosmic events. Read the fine print on NASA's eclipse website and you'll see "Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak." Since the late '70s, he's published eclipse predictions and maps, including details like time, place, type and duration.

NASA research scientist Lika Guhathakurta, who's known Espenak for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him, calls his contributions "monumental." There's even an asteroid named after him. He's also co-author of the book "Totality: The Great American Eclipses of 2017 and 2024." (Yes, there's another one coming to the US in seven years.)

Espenak, seen here in Libya in 2006, has traveled to every continent to see total eclipses. 

Fred Espenak

Espenak witnessed his first total solar eclipse in 1970. At 18, he persuaded his parents to let him drive 600 miles, from New York to North Carolina, "unchaperoned."  After it was over, he was hooked.

"I knew that this could not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had to see another one as soon as possible," said Espenak.

A few years later, he drove 1,200 miles to Canada to see another one. A year after that, he traveled to the Sahara Desert. He's now witnessed about 20 total solar eclipses.

This time, he'll likely watch the eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, where he's speaking at an astronomy convention the previous week. But if the weather forecast looks bad a few days before, he's prepared to drive 800 to 1,000 miles to get to a better location.

Forget about changing your location on eclipse day though, he says. NASA is predicting heavy traffic. Even if you manage to get somewhere else, there's no guarantee of better weather. "It's not always the wisest idea just to jump in the car and blindly go chasing after holes in the clouds," Espenak said. "Sucker holes we call them. It's best just to wait it out."

I talked with Espenak about the big event dubbed the Great American Eclipse, how a partial eclipse in no way prepares you for a total eclipse, and why you'd better not skip this one. The interview has been edited for brevity. 

Q: You've said, "In rating natural wonders on a scale of 1 to 10, a total eclipse of the sun is a million." What makes it so hard to convey what a total eclipse is like to someone who's never seen one?
Espenak: A total eclipse is unlike anything anyone has ever seen. It's not like any other natural phenomenon. It's certainly not like any astronomical phenomenon that generally takes place at a very slow pace, maybe over days or weeks or months. With a total solar eclipse your environment changes within seconds and it's quite startling ...

It looks surreal. And it really impacts people. The hair on the back of your neck is standing up, you get goosebumps. You get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that something is very wrong, this does not look natural … And it's so brief. You only get to experience it for a few brief minutes. This year 2 minutes and 40 seconds is the maximum. And as soon as it's over and that shadow leaves … and you're quickly brought back into daylight and the corona vanishes, you're wanting to see more because it's gone.

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For people in the US who won't be in the path, how different is the experience of a total eclipse versus a partial eclipse?
Espenak: If you rate natural phenomena on a scale of 1 to 10, a partial eclipse is perhaps a 3. An annular eclipse -- where the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun, but it's too small to completely cover the sun, and you're left with a ring, or annulus, of sunlight -- that might be a 6 or a 7. And a total eclipse is 1 million.

Now, seeing a partial eclipse in no way prepares you to see what a total eclipse looks like. They are as different, literally, as day and night. And people think, well, I'm going to see a 90 percent eclipse, I'm gonna see a 95 percent or even 99 percent eclipse … I like to compare it to the lottery. If you get five out of six numbers correct in the lottery, you're still a loser …

Not everybody can get to the path of totality for one reason or another. But if they don't go simply because of apathy, they have made a big mistake, because their friends and neighbors that do go will be telling them about this for years to come.

When did you know eclipses would become a lifelong passion?
Espenak: I knew I was going to be traveling to eclipses probably after the third one, after I went to Africa and realized, you know, you can go to other parts of the world to see these things; you don't have to wait for eclipses to come to you. Since that time, I've been to all seven continents, including Antarctica, to see total eclipses.

Throughout history, people have had superstitions or believed in myths surrounding eclipses. Do you have a favorite story about these myths?
Espenak: The Chippewa Indians in Northeastern America, when they saw the sunlight being extinguished during a solar eclipse, would launch burning arrows at the sun to try to reignite the sun. That's one of my favorite ones.

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Espenak met his wife, Pat, on an eclipse expedition to India in 1995.

Fred Espenak

What's one of the most memorable total solar eclipses you've seen?
Espenak: One of the most memorable was a pretty short eclipse. It was in India in 1995, and I traveled there with a group of about 30 people. And everybody on the trip had seen a total eclipse, save one person.

This one woman had been trying to see a total eclipse for 20 years. And she'd gone to several eclipses and been clouded out. So everybody was excited to share their experiences with her and try to get her all prepared. When she saw the eclipse she was so moved that she cried afterwards. She was kind of depressed afterwards because she had waited 20 years to see this thing, and now it was over and it was only 41 seconds long.

Well, we stayed in touch and started corresponding with email. To make a long story short, we got married.

Traveling to see a total eclipse can take a lot of planning. Even with your experience and expertise, have you had some memorable misses?
Espenak: In 2012, we had a trip to Northern Australia, near Cairns. And we were maybe 10 miles inland, up on these hills looking down out across the coast, and we had a lot of people who were newbies … The sun was in and out of the clouds ... We even had little light showers before totality began …

But when totality began, we actually caught little bits and glimpses and pieces of it through the clouds. So we saw something … What surprised me were the people who had not seen one before. They were elated because they got to see something through the clouds. And it was so dramatic that they still had a good eclipse experience. They didn't quite realize how much they had missed but it was enough. So, I counted that as a success even though we were mostly clouded out of that one.

Have you seen this much attention before from the public and the media surrounding eclipses, or does it seem like they're more of an attraction now?
Espenak: It's not that they're more of an attraction, per se. It's because the eclipse passes through the US. That's the main thing. When the eclipse is passing through Mongolia or Tierra Del Fuego or some inaccessible place, people don't pay that much attention to it.

But this is the first time we've had an eclipse through the contiguous US in 38 years … Something like 12 million or 14 million Americans live in the path of totality. Nearly half of the US population is within a day's car drive to get into the path. So that's unprecedented access for a total eclipse. And that's why the public is so fascinated with this one.

Totality will last at most only a few minutes. For first-timers, what's the best way to fully experience the total eclipse?
Espenak: I always tell first-timers, If you can resist the temptation, do not try to take photographs of it. Just watch it. And the best way to watch it is with the naked eye -- of course, with your eclipse glasses for the partial phases. But when totality begins you take those eclipse glasses off so you can watch it directly with the naked eye. And then just naked-eye views, looking at the sun, the corona, the sky, looking all around the horizon and taking all these different vistas in.

The other thing that people might bring along are a pair of binoculars, just for totality. So you can get close-up views of the corona and those red prominences around the edge of the moon. And I wouldn't advise anything more than that. Perhaps a comfortable chair and maybe even a pillow to lean back and watch it.

In addition to changes in temperature and light, what are some other things to watch or listen for that people might not think of?
Espenak: Be attentive to the environment that you're watching the eclipse in. Hopefully, you're not in the middle of a city. Or, if you are, try to be in a park or something because animals and plants have an interesting reaction to eclipses.

You see flowers closing up in the minutes before totality begins, in that dimming sunlight. I've seen cows heading back to the barn right before totality begins because light is dropping so much that they think it's sunset. Birds tend to go to roost. I've heard crickets begin serenading us five minutes before totality begins, and they sing all through totality, and then they quiet down five minutes after totality ends as daylight gets brighter and brighter. So there's a lot of reaction in nature to the dropping sunlight during the eclipse.

What words of encouragement do you have for people who are in the path but find the eclipse gets clouded out?
Espenak: Well, it depends on how cloudy it is, because, I mean the worst case scenario is it's totally dismal and drizzling during the eclipse. Even then, for those two or three minutes you see a dramatic drop in the brightness of the sky. It just visibly goes right down and it's quite spooky-looking …

The words of encouragement are that, OK, you've experienced an eclipse even though it was cloudy, and there's another one passing through the US in seven years. So start planning.

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