Peeking behind the curtain of the universe

Peeking behind the curtain of the universe

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The eclipse has come and gone, and for me it lived up to its advanced billing. It was awesome. I can’t say I was prepared to be awed. In fact, since most “great” shows tend to be overhyped, especially with all the different platforms we now communicate on, from radio and TV to blogs, websites, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and the rest, they are over previewed and inevitably a letdown.

Not so last Monday’s eclipse. I happened to be taking a vacation day, and my family was visiting, so there were a number of us getting ready for the event. We weren’t particularly excited about what was predicted to happen. I think curious was a better description. None of us had secured the appropriate glasses in advance but fortunately a good friend put a pair in my hands at the last minute, and that made all the difference.

Without the glasses, we were told not to look at the sun for fear of damaging our retinas. The day dawned pleasantly enough, with blue sky and bright sun but, as the morning wore on, the light breeze that started the day disappeared altogether. We noted that fact because we have a little Hobie Cat that we use to get out on the water, and there wasn’t even enough wind to move that slender craft. As we sat around the patio, there was an air of expectancy around noon, although maybe I was just projecting. We heard no birdsong, saw no squirrels and thought the yard unusually quiet. By then the bright sun had yielded to what seemed like overhanging clouds, but there weren’t low clouds in the sky. By 1:30 p.m., there was perceptibly less light.

By 2:30, one by one we looked up at the sun through the protective glasses, and each of us emitted an involuntary noise. The moon, essentially a black disc, was moving west to east across the lower three-quarters of the sun. We could see it clearly, with no clouds in the way. The feeling was of watching something happening that was profoundly greater than any human activity. In fact, I had a similar sensation when I stood at the top of a mountain in Alaska and looked out over the hundreds of miles of landscape with not a human or a human structure in sight. I felt the utter insignificance of humans in the cosmos.

Just as predicted for the New York region, around 2:40 we saw the maximum area of sun occluded by the moon, and just around that time there was a fierce gust of wind that came from nowhere and shook the surrounding trees, with their lush summer leaves, into a frenzy. It was almost spooky. After a few minutes, the wind diminished and turned into a summer breeze.

We sat in a circle, passing the cardboard glasses from hand to hand, and continued to marvel at the sight of the moon blocking most of the sun. But the surface of the moon did not seem uniformly dense, rather appearing to let patches of light through parts of the disc — or so it appeared to me. Then, as the minutes ticked by and the moon moved off, it was almost with regret that we saw it leave. For those all-too-brief moments, we had witnessed what only the gods can see: the movement of the inner parts of the universe as some sort of well-regulated Swiss watch. It was a stately dance of the planets, predictable for its steps but thrilling on its cosmic scale.

Then it was over and, as one, we rose to take advantage of the newfound breeze and get in some late afternoon sailing. But somehow we weren’t quite the same. Yes, we know the basics: That the Earth revolves around the sun and the moon revolves around the Earth, a kind of merry-go-round within a merry-go-round. But to witness a tiny part of that movement, for even the shortest time, can only be described as leaving us in awe. 

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