In this summer of national discord, when leaks and tweets dominate the news and deep distrust divides the U.S., the nation is about to receive a gift from above. On August 21 the moon’s shadow will descend along a roughly 70-mile-wide path from Oregon to South Carolina, treating those below to nature’s grandest spectacle, a total solar eclipse. The celestial event is being touted as a rare opportunity for astronomers and skywatchers, but its significance could prove much more far-reaching. Indeed, the eclipse offers a chance for some national healing.
I make this claim based on three considerations: geography, psychology and history.
Geographically speaking, the track of this year’s eclipse could hardly be more perfect. It drapes like a sash across the nation’s midsection, with 12 million people living within the path and more than 100 million able to reach it in a day’s drive. Communities inside the zone, such as Hopkinsville, Ky., and Casper, Wyo., have been anticipating the celestial show for years. They have scheduled festivals and are bracing for unprecedented crowds. They have arranged for armies of Porta Potties.
Many towns in the path of totality have run out of lodging, every room having been snagged long ago by legions of eclipse chasers, so locals are opening their homes via Airbnb, and offering their farm fields as campsites. This is just what we need—an excuse for millions of people of different backgrounds to come together. It will be an occasion for Trump’s America to host visitors from the land of Obama, as New Yorkers head to the foothills of Appalachia, Denverites to the Nebraska plains.
Whereas any excuse for Americans to mingle could prove beneficial in these divisive times, this national gathering is one of a kind. A total solar eclipse is a rare, brief and dazzling event. Thirty-eight years have elapsed since a total eclipse last touched the continental U.S. and almost a century has passed since one crossed the country from coast to coast. For those in the path of this year’s eclipse, the period of darkness will last no more than two minutes and 40 seconds—but oh what a two minutes and 40 seconds.
A total eclipse peels back Earth’s blue sky to expose an incomprehensible vista, a cosmic view toward the center of our solar system. The brighter stars and planets appear at midday, and floating among them you see the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, shimmering like a tinsel wreath in the depths of space. The sight is humbling and mystical. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who in 1806 witnessed a total eclipse in upstate New York, recalled feeling “a humiliating, and, I trust, a profitable sense of my own utter insignificance.”
As a nation, we could do with more humility. Psychologists have found that inspirational experiences benefit individuals and societies. Feeling oneself in the presence of a higher power—whether it be natural or supernatural—encourages empathy and generosity, and promotes group cohesion. The eclipse—an awe-inspiring experience to be shared by millions—could instill a sense of unity while also providing a distraction from the petty affairs that divide us. Indeed, history tells us this has happened before.
In 1878 the U.S. was, as it is today, bitterly divided over its recent presidential election. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had won the White House despite losing the popular vote, prompting Democrats to question his legitimacy. Opponents derided Hayes as “His Fraudulency.” Congress called hearings into electoral manipulation. Rancorous partisan debate dominated the newspapers.
That summer a highly anticipated total solar eclipse crossed America’s western frontier, and it changed the national conversation in constructive ways. For a time politics got pushed aside as the federal government dispatched astronomers to the path of totality. American scientists aimed to study the eclipsed sun and, moreover, to show Europe that this young nation could compete as an intellectual power. The country embraced a shared national goal—the pursuit of science—that infused astronomy with patriotic fervor. As the moon’s shadow descended on the Rocky Mountains, one group of observers—their party affiliations unstated—joined in a moment of fellowship. “Just as the light of the hidden sun burst out,” a Colorado newspaper reported, “every tongue was unloosed. The ladies started ‘My country ’tis of thee,’ and sang it with a will.”
As a proud American who believes in the value of science, I hope that the 2017 eclipse will have a similar effect—bringing our nation together and reminding us of the wonder of the natural world. The eclipse will not solve Washington gridlock but perhaps it will restore a bit of civility to our national discourse, and it may well boost the profile of science at a time when many in the profession feel themselves under attack.
As a country, we should make it our collective goal to get as many Americans as possible into the path of the moon’s shadow. We could use something to rally around—something that transcends partisanship. On August 21, if at no other time—and for as long as two minutes 40 seconds—our fractured nation can stand together, united in humility and awe.