How To Maximize Your Eclipse Experience

A Purdue professor explains how to get the most out of viewing the eclipse.

WHEN Purdue University professor Barrett S. Caldwell advises total eclipse newbies on how to get the most out of the historic April 8 event, he sounds more like a Zen master than a space specialist. “A solar eclipse is one of the most memorable experiences you can have as a human,” he says. “So just experience it. Don’t try to take pictures. The emotional and spiritual experience is the most important way you could spend those three to four minutes.”

Don’t talk, either—just listen. “You might hear night birds starting to call and daytime birds go quiet,” says Caldwell, a professor of industrial engineering, as well as aeronautics and astronautics. Rural observers may notice that as the eclipse ends, roosters start crowing and other farm animals become active again. And Caldwell, who also serves as director of
the Indiana Space Grant Consortium, can discuss eclipses in professorial terms, too: “The diameter of the moon is 1/400th the diameter of the sun,” he says. “But the sun is 400 times farther away. So the discs of the sun and the moon are almost the same size, and that’s pretty amazing.” What else should you know before the world goes dark? Caldwell offers these words of enlightenment:

  • The difference between a total eclipse and a partial eclipse, even at 99 percent totality, is like—well, night and day. Caldwell’s recommendation? “If you’re living outside the zone of totality, take some time off.”
  • Don’t gaze at the eclipse without protective eyewear certified by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization), ordered from a trusted supplier, and “about a million times darker than regular sunglasses,” Caldwell says. He notes that the only exception to this rule is during totality, when it’s safe to remove the glasses (but don’t risk your retinas if you’re not sure).
  • A low-tech kitchen utensil can help you follow the eclipse’s progress safely. “Hold up a colander and shine it on the ground,” he says. The holes in the bottom will create multiple images of the moon slipping in front of the sun on the ground.
  • Don’t expect to see four minutes of midnight. “It’s full moon–dark,” he says, “a 360-degree sunset.” The temperature will drop accordingly.
  • Would a cloudy day put the kibosh on eclipse viewing? Yes, it would, which is why seasoned eclipse chasers check the weather a couple days in advance and have a Plan B. But as Caldwell notes, the show will still go on above the clouds, and the sky will grow darker. “Even if it’s cloudy, you’ll notice a difference,” he says, “but of course, it’s more fun if it’s not!”

For anyone who still can’t decide whether the April 8 eclipse is worth the hype, consider how Caldwell was affected by a previous experience seeing one. “Even though I’m an engineer and I understand the science,” he says, “it’s an amazing and transformative experience. Words fail you.” His reaction to the spectacle was simple, heartfelt, and human: “I cried.”