Tag: eclipse experience

21 Nov 2016

Total eclipse outreach: managing the hype

Super moon and super hype
Supermoon of 2014.  Image taken at moonrise with a telephoto lens.  Was the supermoon this big when viewed with the naked eye?  Nope.

Recently, there was much to-do about the supermoon.  In a way, it was great, as people started talking about the moon, and many made a point of going outside to view our closest celestial body.   Images like the one above – taken with a telephoto lens capturing the moon illusion – are gorgeous and captivating, and were making the rounds on social media in the fortnight leading up to the supermoon.  However, some people saw these posts, read the hype and then expected to see the moon this huge in the night sky.  They were then disappointed when it looked just the same as every other full moon they had seen, perhaps a little brighter.

moon-hype
This is true, but not as newsworthy on social media.

We seem to now be in a situation where the normal – a beautiful full Moon – is no longer enough.  It now has to be  some super, special, branded thing that people think they are missing out if they don’t see it.  Some rare factoid is then used to give it even more meaning, and photos are used out of context – or faked – to create an unnecessary dramatic effect.  This over hyping of astronomical events certainly grabs people’s attention, but there is a downside – expectations are raised, and then dashed, and people are left disappointed and disinterested in other astronomical activities.  The reality is, there is so much to explore out there in the night sky, every night.   We just have to stop and look up.

WHEN HYPE IS APPROPRIATE – BUT HOW MUCH?

But there is one astronomical event that astronomers and science outreach folk actually DO get very, very excited about, and is truly worthy of hype.  The total solar eclipse.   It is not the rarity that makes this event special – it really, truly is quite an unnatural and awe-inspiring event.  Most of the people on social media currently talking about the total eclipse are those who have actually seen one, or are preparing for one.  But it won’t be long before social media hype will take over, with unnecessary fake photos and incorrect facts, conspiracy theories and talk of the end of the world.  We should brace ourselves.  

If you are under 40, live in the US and have never traveled abroad to see a total eclipse, then you will never have experienced one.  Yet it is surprising how many people think they have seen a total eclipse, because of misunderstanding media reports and social media posts.

That is why eclipse outreach is so important for those who are living in or near to the path of totality for August 2017.  Most people get their astronomical news from social media, where fake stories and images abound.  Even in traditional media reports, there are often factual errors and incorrect images.  People need accurate information to understand what is to come, why it is a big deal, where they need to go to experience it, what to expect, and how to view it safely.

This image was reported to be a total solar eclipse taken from the ISS. However, it is 38 hours of digital artistry. Lovely, but in no way represents a total solar eclipse.
This image was reported to be a total solar eclipse taken from the ISS. However, it is 38 hours of digital artistry. Lovely and atmospheric – but not a true likeness. ©2009-2016 A4size-ska.

But if, like me, you share the full details about the total eclipse experience are you also feeding into the hype?  Are we raising people’s expectations about this once-in-a-lifetime event, only for them to be disappointed?

Telling people what to expect CAN influence their expectations.  But I also believe that you cannot ever spoil or over-hype a total solar eclipse.   Totality is very visceral, fully immersive, and goes beyond language.  There is no way, using words alone, that you can fully prepare someone for what they may feel and how it will impact upon them.

I have interviewed many scientists who say they thought they would not have any emotional reaction to their first total eclipse as it is a ‘science event’.  Yet, despite their ‘superior’ knowledge, they were still as affected as others who knew very little – screaming out ‘oh my God‘, repeatedly, being stunned into silence, and perhaps even crying, as they see the impossible happen.  Not everyone has emotional or transformative responses, but it is a rare person who is not moved and completely awestruck by the experience.  

 I have now spoken with hundreds of people before their first total eclipse, and then afterwards.  I get comments such as  “I was expecting it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be THAT good!”, or “If I hadn’t heard you talking about what it would be like, I would never have gone”.    I have never had one person say that previous conversations with me has spoiled the experience for them. 

When doing my eclipse research, the most common analogy most people relate the total eclipse experience to is the birth of their children.  It is a meaningful, significant and life-changing experience.  You may know what is to happen, have read about it, talked about it, seen videos, and even read personal accounts.  But nothing can prepare you for what goes on physically and emotionally, and how you make sense of it.  

THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF TOTALITY – WHEN ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS

There have been a few occasions that people have expressed their disappointment, or disinterest – always because they thought they had experienced totality when they hadn’t.

For example, when a total eclipse is clouded out, this can be disappointing as the main features are not seen and experienced.  During a post-eclipse lecture back in 2012, one man expressed his disappointment at the over hype of the total eclipse experience, which for him was blocked by thick cloud.  He could not accept that there was so much more to what he experienced, and he had no interest in seeing another.   It made me understand the importance of ‘expectation management’ – something that I encourage organisers to consider if they are in regions along the path that are likely to be cloudy.

Again in 2012, I was interviewing a local about her eclipse experience, and she didn’t seem to have much of the usual emotion when recounting her day.  When questioned further, it transpired that she kept her solar filters on for the whole of totality due to fear of harming her eyes.  As a result, she saw nothing, and missed it all.

By far the most common reports of disappointment are made by those who THINK they have seen the total solar eclipse, but were clearly not within the path.   One of my colleagues over a period of time kept questioning me on the authenticity of my experience, as he hadn’t felt any emotion at all during totality. After we consulted maps, it turns out that he was located about 400 miles away from the path of totality!  He had seen media reporting about the total eclipse, and had assumed that the partial in his area was the main show.  He had been adamant that he had seen a total eclipse.  I think to this day he STILL thinks they are no big deal – his loss.

MY APPROACH TO ECLIPSE OUTREACH

Everyone has different drives and motivations.  Some people are much more open to having new experiences – these are the people who will seek out information themselves about the eclipse.  But for most others within the path of totality, they will need information that helps them to understand the unique experience that is to come, so they can plan to see it.

Researching the eclipse experience.
Hearing others talk about the eclipse experience is the way to engage. (c) 2015, Kate Russo.

When I do my talks, I talk from my personal experience, but also from my research as well.  Sharing the experiences of many gives me the ability to highlight how unique and meaningful the total eclipse experience is.  There are similarities, of course, but the impact is deeply personal.  I can describe differences in how people make sense of that feeling of connection – it could be a connection to nature, the universe, mother earth, or some religious figure.  I never know what that will mean for each person – but I can give examples of how others have made sense of it.  This information may help people to put language to the profound experience they have, but it doesn’t necessarily change the lived experience.  Nor does it spoil it for them.

So, should you read and listen to other people’s accounts of totality before you see it for yourself?  I think yes.   Reading the accounts of others, listening to eclipse chasers – these things may influence how you think about it, and how you act.   That is, it might make you more likely to get into the path of totality, and to convince others to go along with you.  Without knowing that it really is quite a special event, you just may miss this chance, and regret it for a lifetime.

My next book features personal total eclipse experiences from a small number of ordinary people, and will be self published and available from my website in early 2017.   I also plan to engage in a speaking tour of the path of totality in 2017.  Formal announcements will occur soon.  Get in touch if you would like your community to be included in my tour.  

07 May 2013

Annular versus Total Solar Eclipse

fig 8 - annular eclipse
The Ring of Fire – picture by Daniel Lynch

 

I am often asked to describe the difference between a Total and an Annular Solar Eclipse.

The key difference is that the Moon is further away from the Earth, with the disc of the Moon no longer fully covering the Sun.  Instead, a ‘ring of fire’ remains.  Even though the light is greatly reduced, it is still not possible to safely view with the naked eye and solar filters must be used at all times, even during annularity.  The most exciting and thrilling features of totality will not be seen or experienced.

An Annular eclipse is pretty special, but if you are used to seeing a Total Eclipse then an Annular feels like a great buildup and then the peak just doesn’t happen. This is the reason why Geordie jokes that he “won’t get out of bed for anything less than a Total’ these days.

What does it feel like to experience a partial eclipse, an Annular, and a Total?  To me, it comes down to the degree of immersion and intensity.  On a scale of 0 to 10 of immersion and intensity, a partial eclipse I would rate about a 4—it is interesting, it makes you think about the Universe in a three dimensional way, you become aware of the inevitability of the Universal clock.  An Annular Eclipse I would rate about an 8—there are added experiences such as the gradual dimming of light, animal reactions, the approaching darkness, and seeing the Ring through solar filters.  It is pretty awesome. On the same scale of immersion and intensity, I would rate a Total Solar Eclipse as 100.  This is because once you experience the Total Eclipse you realize that it is on a completely different scale altogether, and just cannot be compared.  It completely blows you away.

Many analogies have been used to describe the partial versus Annular versus Total Eclipse experience.  Here is an example that many can relate to, using a musical concert:

You have just received word that your favorite band in the world will be performing – and they are coming to your town!  You queue up to purchase your tickets in advance, feeling very excited when you have them in your hand. Finally the day comes and you make your way to the venue. You find a spot that is close to the front, and it just so happens to give you a great line of sight of everything. The support band plays for an hour and you get caught up in the excitement, waving your arms in the air and dancing away as one with the crowd. The support band ends their set, and the crowd starts cheering excitedly, building up a crescendo of noise and screams until the moment arrives – your band comes on stage!  You see them!  You are beside yourself with excitement.  For the next two hours, the band plays all of your favorite songs, and you feel like you are in your own little world, just you and the band, as you are part of this magical moment. You go home that evening feeling so incredibly lucky, and content with your life.

Here’s the comparison – seeing a partial eclipse is like getting your tickets to the concert.  An Annular Eclipse would be like going home just when the support band ends their set—right when things just start to get exciting.  The Total eclipse is experiencing the whole thing.

09 Mar 2013

Beyond language

 

mongolia sand dune

At my Brisbane book launch, I was speaking with Terry, an eclipse chaser who did a lot of media during the last total eclipse in November 2012.  Terry recounted how every local person he interviewed immediately after the eclipse to share their experience could only say a few words – “It was awesome”.  “It was amazing”.  People repeatedly struggled to find words.   I was not surprised to hear this – this is how I felt after my first eclipse experience, and it really did take quite a while to be able to put language to the experience.  Many eclipse chasers have stories of being near others who experience it for their first time, and seeing their reactions – being totally overwhelmed and unable to speak, or just repeatedly saying ‘wow’.

Even when we then are able to connect again with our brains after the experience, our language seems unable to express the intensity of what we have felt.  The experience of totality requires us to expand our mental structures in order to understand – not unlike the experience of childbirth or other significant life-changing experiences.   This is why we cannot explain it to those who have not experienced it – it is ineffable.

The problem is, when intense things happen to us, we want to share our experiences.  We want to talk to others – to connect with others.  When we try to explain to others who weren’t there, we sound a little crazy and fanatical, and it becomes frustrating.   We just cannot convey the power of the event, how it impacted upon us personally, and the ‘addictive’ nature of the experience.

I have now spent hundreds of hours interviewing people about their eclipse experiences – eclipse chasers and people who have just seen their first total eclipse.  These interviews usually are very fluent until we get to the point where totality occurs, and people stumble, slow down, pepper their words with ‘you know’, ‘it was like….’, ‘um, you know’, ‘…just awesome’.    People are reassured that I understand what they are trying to convey as I have been there, and this allows them to continue on with their struggle of finding the words, and with prompting and continued discussion we usually get to a point where the full experience is shared.  With all of these interviews, I have now noticed a few patterns when people try to explain the inexplicable:

Adding extra prefixes and suffixes –   The ‘specialness’ of the experience and the ‘unfathomability’ of the darkness of the Moon that looks out at you like an eye just cannot be described, along with other features.  For example, the ‘unduplicability’ of the colors on the horizon.  The ‘unstoppability’ as the Moons’ shadow races towards you, and the ‘inevitableness’ of the eclipse happening and there is nothing that we can do about it.  We just feel the need to add extra dimensions to our words to convey how amazing it is.

Overuse of similes – When people struggle with finding the words, they then try to find similar experiences to compare to, so that the things can be communicated through experience rather than through words.  ‘It was like CGI graphics’;   “light was like a 50’s film’;   the eclipsed Sun was ‘like a hole in the sky’, or ‘like the eye of god’, and the remainder of the partial eclipse grinned down ‘like a Cheshire cat’.   Totality felt ‘like anything could happen’, and you are shocked ‘as if a dead relative just walked into the room’.  The similes usually relate to feeling that something unnatural had happened, something so amazing that it had to be computer generated.

Attempts to use other senses – People sometimes start to use other ways of communicating, or using other senses in an attempt to convey their words.  Hand gestures increase without words coming out.  Some use an imagined sound to describe the experience – ‘like it all just popped into place’,  the darkness ‘came roaring towards us’.   It was like ‘it made a noise’ and was alive.

It’s fantastic that as adults we can experience such wonder in the world that makes us speechless.  The Japanese refer to this as Yugen – where we experience the full wonder of the Universe on a phenomenological level.   It is these experiences that make us feel the most alive.