There’s nothing quite like a celestial event, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in nearly 40 years, to provide some sorely needed perspective into our Earthbound activities.
The first total solar eclipse visible from American soil since Feb. 26, 1979 has come and gone, and although Rhode Islanders only got to enjoy 66 percent of a totality (which means full coverage of the sun by the moon) this time around, it was still momentous enough to halt traffic on Sandy Lane as more than 500 people crowded the Warwick Public Library for a last chance to grab some eclipse glasses and see the spectacle.
Hordes of people flocked to the northwestern, midland and southeast states were located in the area of 100 percent totality that almost perfectly bisected the nation. Wyoming, alone, experienced a more than 131,000 increase in traffic numbers in the days leading up to the eclipse. The draw of the eclipse was so significant that it is estimated to have brought in hundreds of millions of tourism dollars in states experiencing totality.
The rarity of such a solar eclipse is certainly one of the reasons people will take precious vacation and personal days in order to trek cross-country just to look at a darkening sky for between one to three minutes. Anybody who missed this eclipse will have to wait almost seven years until April 8, 2024 before another opportunity comes along in the United States.
Another draw of such a sight, though, must be deeply ingrained in our collective nature. Even just a couple thousand years ago in the storied history of our species, those witnessing an eclipse would have blinded themselves observing what they thought must surely be a sign of the end of the world.
As our knowledge of astronomy has increased exponentially over the centuries, we have come to understand eclipses as nothing more than a certainty of mathematics and physics that manifests in a particularly neat and noticeable way. We have mastered the observable laws of our galaxy so that we can accurately predict when they will happen, where they happen more significantly and for how long they will last.
Yesterday’s eclipse was a reminder of how far we have come scientifically, but it also served as a means to compare the United States as it exists today versus the United States that existed in 1979.
Not even 40 years have passed, and yet the expansive depths of our technological progress in that short time frame could never be properly covered in any one piece of writing. In 1979 it was an accomplishment for one broadcast television camera to successfully capture a shot of a perfect totality and deliver that image across the country. Today, millions were able to witness the event unfold live online via streams, and hundreds of TV crews, big and small, from around the country captured the action in each place touched by the eclipse.
Today we can 3D print functioning organs and design eyeballs and prosthetics that enable those encumbered by blindness and missing limbs to see, and perform competitively in triathlons. Real time virtual reality is right around the corner, and electric cars are only increasing in popularity while decreasing in cost. Robotics and automation has become so accessible that it is all but assured we will have to rethink the way people work.
Not all progress is technological, though. In November of 1979, a group of armed Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members surrounded a protest led by members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, N.C. Although it is disputed who fired first, five members of the CWP lay dead after the two hate groups opened fire into the protesters, who were advocating for more workers’ rights for African American textile workers.
Many were worried over the weekend that such a display of hate could be coming full circle, as so-called “free speech” advocates were primed to rally in Boston, despite the date occurring in the wake of a tragic death caused by a white nationalist protest and counter-protest in Virginia, and in the midst of resurfacing racial and ethnic tension in the country as a whole.
What happened instead was a vocal display of progress. Estimates ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 people descended on Boston to spread a strong message against hate and intolerance, compared to only as many as 50 people who showed up to voice their controversial opinions.
We once thought that an eclipse meant the end of the world. Today, an eclipse may very well provide the perspective and big-picture clarity that can cement a new era of progress, bringing us from the darkness into a new era of light.