Sunday August 20, 2017

The life-changing magic of witnessing an eclipse

According to astronomer Don Hladiuk, this year's total eclipse will be most likely the best studied eclipse in history.

According to astronomer Don Hladiuk, this year's total eclipse will be most likely the best studied eclipse in history. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Listen 10:04

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will darken the skies from Oregon to South Carolina — the first in the contiguous U.S. in 38 years. 

Astronomer Don Hladiuk fondly remembers the 1979 total solar eclipse — his very first — as the event that changed him forever.

"We played hooky, we skipped out of university that day, drove up to Hecla Island in the middle of Lake Winnipeg," he tells The Sunday Edition's guest host David Gray.

This year's total solar eclipse will mark the 16th time Hladiuk has witnessed the moon passing between the sun and the earth, ever since that cold February morning nearly four decades ago.

'It's absolutely magical. You feel like you've been transported to another planet.' - Don Hladiuk

He describes the eclipse as a dark wave coming across the face of the earth at a great velocity. He says there is a visceral and profound feeling that washes over you as the sun disappears.

"All of a sudden, if you look up ... at the sun, you'll see the last beads of sunlight disappearing and then this black orb of the moon, completely surrounded by this beautiful pearly white halo," he explains.

"It's absolutely magical. You feel like you've been transported to another planet," he says.

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Throughout human history, the phenomenon of a total solar eclipse has both frightened and fascinated. (Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

Throughout human history, the phenomenon of a total solar eclipse has both frightened and fascinated. Various ancient cultures and religions attempted to explain why the sun had vanished from the sky for a few moments.

In what is now Vietnam, the people believed that a solar eclipse was caused by a giant dog eating the sun. The ancient Greeks thought it was a sign that the gods were angry, and that disaster was imminent.

Today we know why solar eclipses occur, but Hladiuk says there are still many scientific insights to be gleaned from this year's total solar eclipse.

'This will be most likely the best studied eclipse in history.' - Don Hladiuk

According to Hladiuk, NASA will have 11 satellites measuring the temperature of the earth and tracking wind and cloud patterns, as well as high-altitude balloons and observers from the ground.

"This will be most likely the best studied eclipse in history," he says.

Hladiuk tells Gray he cannot imagine what it would have been like to witness a total solar eclipse thousands of years ago, when people were unaware of its astronomical explanation. 

"I think it brings out even primal fear because the sun is something that you rely upon. It's there all the time," he explains.

"But it is truly ... the greatest natural light show that we can see on this planet."

Click 'Listen' above to hear the full interview.