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Viewing the Solar Eclipse from Pittsburgh, PA
The entire country became astronomers today when the moon blocked out the sun for a few minutes in each time zone, creating an eerie shadow, turning shadows into crescent shapes, and firing breathtaking beams of light around its edges. Some views were better than others. I live in a city where only 80% of the eclipse was visible. We never did get to see it in its entirety, but luckily, the Internet showed us what we were missing in other cities. Below are my experiences and reflections of the day.
It could not be stressed enough how important it was NOT to look directly into the eclipse as it was forming. Time frames for each time zone were repeated continuously so as to make sure that everyone was given proper warning about when not to look at the sun. Animal owners were warned to keep their cats and dogs inside. Previous victims of eye damage as the result of looking at past eclipses preached to the public about not making the same mistake that they did. This began a mad scramble for the limited number of NASA-approved glasses that were recommended for viewing the event.
I have to admit, my search for these glasses was limited. As soon as I heard that places were selling out, I didn’t even attempt to go out looking to see if there was a spare pair to be found at any of my usual stomping grounds, and I wasn’t about to pay the overnight online shipping fees in order to get them delivered to me on time. Instead, I looked for alternative methods of viewing the spectacle.
The method that NASA recommended was the cereal box viewer. It cost nearly nothing to make and was said to project a safe-to-look-at image of the eclipse inside the box. So, I got to work making mine.
First, I snipped off the two ends of the top of the box. Then, I taped down the two center pieces that remained.
Ripping off a piece of aluminum foil, I taped down one of the open sides of the top of the box. Then, I poked a hole in the center of the foil as directed.
Next, I covered the box with construction paper, adding my own decorations to the outside. I now had my viewer.
Making My Useless Cereal Box Viewer
The Morning of the Eclipse
It was a work day so I decided to take a late lunch so that I could go outside and view the scene at its peak time, which for us was 2:35 pm eastern. However, since the eclipse moved across the United States from west to east, I was able to view the eclipse from other cities hours before it was to hit here.
The first stop was Oregon. Buzzfeed was streaming live from a field in Oregon where the skies were clear and they were in the direct path of totality, allowing you to see a full view of the eclipse and its many phases. By 11am, most channels were live streaming the event, posting a slow-moving image of a dark circle enveloping an orange orb. The view looked like someone had drawn an orange circle in Microsoft Paint and made the background black before creating a black curve and placing it over the orange circle little by little. There was no depth or texture to the image, but as I flipped back and forth between it and my work, I could see the darkness closing in around the orange circle. As the last sliver of light was covered, the orange became white, and then tongues of red light began to spark around the edge.
At the same time, footage was being shot from the ground, and when the sun was completely covered, the sky grew dark, though not pitch black. It looked more like the last stages of evening before night falls. There was a dull, yellow glow on the horizon even though the sun was high in the air while the rest of the sky became various shades of dark blue, almost black when you looked straight up. This dark stage lasted barely more than a minute before the sun came back out, and the crowd cheered like the ball had dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The eclipse began for us in the east at 1:00pm. By then, people were starting to come out of their office buildings with their glasses on. I waited to go out until two and get myself set up for the big show at 2:35. When I got out to the parking lot, I began to point my cereal box viewer at the sun, a difficult task without being able to look at it.
A pop up thunderstorm had hit at 9 in the morning, leaving behind a hazy mist of white clouds that thinly veiled the sun, not the clear skies that we were promised. I was able to get the light to filter in through the hole in my aluminum foil, but instead of projecting an image of the eclipse, it only projected a white square of light visible from the hole on the other side of the top of the box.
The sky stayed light blue. We were too far north of the path of totality to be able to see what Oregon had seen. I heard no strange behavior from the animals, which I was told could happen as the result of the confusion of the strange solar phenomenon. The sun was bright overhead, and it seemed to cast off bright yellow rays like a child's drawing. I took pictures with my phone and digital camera, pointing in the general direction of the sun and hoping that I was getting it in the frame, too afraid to look directly up into the light.
At 2:35, the people around us with glasses began to “ohhh” and “ahhh” as the red solar flares began to jut out from the thin sliver of light visible behind the moon. I could only see yellow sun with tubes of light filtering out of it from the images I was taking. The cereal box viewer continued to disappoint. Then, someone handed me a pair of glasses to try. When I put them on, I could see this:
By then, it was nearing 3:00, and I decided that nothing was going to top that image. So, I went back inside and continued to follow the spectacle for the rest of the day.
The few minutes of blockage gave everybody the opportunity to stop what they were doing and take a look up at the sky, providing a unique perspective and distraction that we all need every once in awhile. It’s hard to believe that three pieces of our solar system that are millions of miles away from each other could line up in a way that is visible to the (not recommended) naked eye and seem like they are short spaceship ride away.
Sometimes it takes a shadow to darken our view of the world and provide the perspective we need to realize what a minuscule piece of existence we are and how we should pause to appreciate the larger elements that have formed long before our births and will continue to revolve and develop long after our deaths. The different perspectives from the live feeds to my photographs to the NASA glasses showed how different an image can be when viewed from different lenses. No single image told the entire story. Whether you are in Oregon, Wyoming, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, or even outer space, we all had a different experience and were able to share that experience with millions of others in a way that we have never been able to share a total solar eclipse before here in the states. Despite my limited view, I’m glad that I got to see what I did, and I’ll be ready for the next one, glasses in hand in 2024.
Did you view the solar eclipse? How much did you see? Where were you watching from? Leave your answers in the comments below!