When the sun and the moon danced

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The last time we had a near-total solar eclipse in these parts was mid-May of 1994. It was slightly more complete than the one that will take place next Monday. Here's how I described it in separate pieces that ran in our May 18 edition:

If you were going to choose a day for the best solar eclipse in 188 years, this would be it — a virtually cloudless, pleasant May midday, the sun high overhead. By coincidence, so is the moon.

Their intersection has brought my 10-year-old son and me to the Cernan Space Center on the campus of Triton College in nearby River Grove. The Chicago Astronomical Society, a group of dedicated local astronomy buffs, have set up five telescopes of varying shapes and sizes, well filtered, and the lines of interested spectators are already forming.

It is 11:04 a.m., still one hour away from the eclipse's peak, but a quarter of the sun has already been obscured, and a festival atmosphere begins to build. How convenient that the first major eclipse in almost 200 years should occur during the lunch hour.

Everyone seems to be holding a shoebox or pin-pricked pieces of cardboard or some contraption that safely projects the eclipse image for naked-eye viewing. Those who planned ahead carry "glasses" made of Mylar, the same foil-like material out of which they make those balloons that last forever. Cernan sold them out yesterday, and they are in great demand, allowing direct views of the conjunction. Most are willing to share, and one man actively searches out kids to offer them a look, probably because they get such a charge out of it. The glasses only cost a buck, but one woman, he said, just offered him $10 for his pair. No sale.

On the south end of the plaza in front of the Cernan Planetarium, one of the amateur astronomers has set up a "sun pitcher," an angled card with three mirrored apertures of varying sizes. The image is "pitched" onto the wall of the Fine Arts building, some 25 feet away. A couple of large cylindrical telescopes have also been converted into "projectors" so that the growing crowd can view the event in real time.

As the sunlight weakens, several bystanders comment that it feels noticeably cooler. Snippets of conversation fill in our information gaps. The moon, says one stargazer, is 400 times smaller than the sun, but it is 400 times closer to us, hence the roughly equivalent size.

Some spread a picnic blanket and start in on lunch, occasionally taking a gander through their protective glasses. A tall man carries a 5-foot-long cardboard tube with a hole in the top end, which projects the eclipse image on the sidewalk. Those with no contraptions whatsoever find that they can still see the image by simply crisscrossing their fingers.

On the far side of the Fine Arts building, the diminishing sunlight peeks through the mesh of leaves and casts hundreds of shining crescents on the sidewalk below.

As we pass noon, Dan Joyce adjusts the image on his enormous scope and points out the "big Cheshire Cat smile" that means "we're almost there." He keeps track of the official time on his "Time Kube," tuned into radio station WWV. At 12:04, he announces, "That's as strong as it's going to be."

The crowd then does what Americans always do after a dramatic climax.

They applaud.

I pulled my son out of school just as the silhouette of the moon began to creep across the sun's fiery circle, the beginning of the most complete solar eclipse in these parts in my lifetime, or his — unless he manages to live to the ripe old age of 115. 

We didn't play hooky for just any old celestial spectacle. The last time this happened was the year 1806. 

What did my son get out of it? He learned that a lot of adults are interested in astronomical phenomena and will take time out of their day to get a good view of it.

He also understands now what a brilliant source of illumination we have 93 million miles distant. On this cloudless day, with more than 90 percent of its surface blocked, old Sol still provided plenty of light, though noticeably less warmth. 

Best of all, thanks to the generosity of those who planned ahead, he was given the chance to look directly at the sun, protected by Mylar foil "sunglasses," for the first time in his life. One man asked Dylan if he wanted to take a look. Tentatively he fit the glasses over his eyes, then nervously gazed up.

Taken by surprise, he stepped back involuntarily and let out an equally involuntary "Oh!" Looking through telescopes is one thing, seeing reflections on sidewalks is a kick, but one's first direct view of the sun being eclipsed is nothing short of a visual concussion. The real thing. I know because it was my first time, too. My son just had his first full frontal acquaintance with awe.

Why didn't every student in every school in the Chicago area have a pair of Mylar glasses or even one pair per classroom to assist schools in taking advantage of a celestial configuration that won't happen again around here until 2099? A lack of resources or simply a lack of foresight? Have the demands of a rigid curriculum made our educational establishment myopic?

I can't help thinking that despite all our educators' efforts and all the money we spend educating our kids, many missed the learning opportunity of a lifetime. What a shame.

Call it an educational eclipse.

Well it is happening again. This Monday's eclipse will be about 5 percent less full than the one in 1994, but that's still plenty full. Let's hope the skies are clear and a new generation will have their first experience with awe.

Happy viewing.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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