Countdown to the Eclipse

Start planning. A total eclipse of the sun will occur on Monday, August 21, 2017. These things don’t happen very often—a few occurrences in a lifetime and not always where you can observe it without helicopters and speed boats.

The total solar eclipse is going to cut a narrow swath across North America—through a corridor in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky-Tennessee, and South Carolina. Mr. Jefferson’s only option would be to travel to Asheville, North Carolina, a distance of 351 miles from Monticello. That’s about two weeks on the road for Mr. J, each direction, if there were roads in that part of the American West of his time, and the Sage of Monticello was not much of a camper. Since he could not live without wine, could not live without books, could not live without fine cuisine, could not live without his word processor (the polygraph), it would be quite an excursion.

A total solar eclipse is the sort of thing that thrilled the men (and some women) of the Enlightenment. They were so impressed by the stunning regularity of the solar system that they decided that God must be a kind of perfect Newtonian celestial mechanic, a planet spinner. A small, quite infrequent number of celestial events—eclipses, alignments of planets, returns of comets, and transits of the mercury or Venus across the face of the sun—remind us of the clocklike precision of the solar system. Thanks to astronomers and mathematicians like Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, between 1500 and 1727 we figured out—well they figured out—how the solar system really works.

To put it in the simplest terms, thanks to them we can predict a total eclipse of the sun, and determine the places on earth where that phenomenon can be seen to full effect. When such moments like the August 21st eclipse occur, those who love this sort of thing get to experience the thrill of the Orderliness of the universe. The Greek word Cosmos actually means Order. To observe an eclipse or a transit is to bow down to what Jefferson called "Nature and Nature’s God," to sing a song of praise to the magnificence of the clock and of the clockmaker—unless you think the perfections of the celestial sphere are merely the yeasty and random stuff of the big bang. Jefferson was a deist. He believed that the Creator was the inventor of gravity.

Jefferson loved these Newtonian moments. In anticipation of the Transit of Venus for June 3, 1769, Jefferson undertook an extensive correspondence with David Rittenhouse, Andrew Ellicott and his other friends in the mathematics and astronomical community, ordered special equipment, including an expensive chronometer (in other words, a clock), prepared for the great moment (if you miss it, is more than 100 years till the next one) with his usual attention to detail—and then it was cloudy at Monticello!

One of his early biographers James Parton said Thomas Jefferson could "calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin." Come to think of it, I doubt that I can do any of those things, but thanks to the Internet I know precisely when the 2017 eclipse will occur, and I can choose from a plethora of American locations from which to observe it.

I know what I’m going to be doing. Two of my favorite people are eclipse groupies. One is the great David Nicandri, formerly the director of the Washington State Historical Society, more recently the author of an excellent book called River of Promise: Lewis & Clark on the Columbia. His manuscript for a book on Captain James Cook is ready for the press. You will recall that Mr. Nicandri and I observed the most recent Transit of Venus, in June 2012, from our respective perches—he near the Pacific Coast, I on a bluff in northwestern North Dakota. I was there with another of my dear friends, one Cathilea Robinett of Sacramento. She wore funky glam-queen sunglasses for the occasion and a stunning fluorescent green t-shirt, and we shared breadfruit (that what Cook did in Tahiti in 1769). I had ordered the dehydrated breadfruit from a website called 1-800-are you really that nerdy?  Whether Cathilea will be available for this celestial circus, I know not. But she’s the kind of woman who can eclipse an eclipse.

But I do know about Douglas of Oxenford. One of my oldest friends Douglas Holmgren, originally of Colorado Springs now of Portland, an x-ray laser physicist, with a Ph.D. from Stanford, a fellow student at Oxford in the late 1970s, has invited me to join him and other science geeks for the eclipse. So I’m planning to drive out to Oregon somewhere and join these solar tailgaters, along with David Nicandri and his merry makers, on August 21st, which, by the way, is just three days after Meriwether Lewis’s 243rd birthday. Lewis & Clark observed the much more common lunar eclipse at Fort Mandan on January 14, 1805. It was 8 below zero. You have to really love the enlightenment to find that amusing.

You can be part of this Jeffersonian moment. Let us at the Jefferson Hour know where you plan to be. Send in your report, including photographs, observations, drawings, and video clips, and we’ll find a way to incorporate them on the show and on our website. I’m serious. You’ll have to order your own breadfruit.

The illustration "Total eclipse of the sun. Observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory" is from New York Public Library Digital Collections.