If you’re planning to witness the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, don’t forget the bubbly.
That’s one piece of advice from Seattle’s Bryan Brewer, who’s had five encounters with totality in his lifetime and has written extensively about the eclipse experience.
The latest edition of his book, “Eclipse: History. Science. Awe,” is designed to prepare spectators for the upcoming total solar eclipse, which will sweep across the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina. This will be the first coast-to-coast American solar eclipse in 99 years, and virtually all of North America will see at least a partial eclipse.
In his book, Brewer tells about how eclipses spurred the creation of Stonehenge and other marvels, why eclipses darken Earth in the middle of the day, and how to get everything you need to see an eclipse yourself.
How to make the most of the eclipse
The first step is to take a look at a map of the eclipse path and get to a place where you’ll be able to experience totality.
“If you’re outside the path, you will not experience the dramatic effects,” Brewer said. “Ninety-eight or 99 percent is not good enough here — you need to be inside the path to get the full effect.”
While getting into the path of totality is important, it’s not the only factor to consider. For example, the path crosses the Oregon Coast south of Portland and north of Eugene. That area may seem to be the most convenient viewing area for Seattleites, but it’s far from ideal.
Brewer said “hordes of people” are expected to make the trip, so traffic will be an issue. And there’s always the question about cloudy skies.
“The better weather will generally be east of the Cascades,” he said.
One big problem has to do with where to stay. Hotels and campsites are virtually sold out in the vicinity of totality.
The Cairn outdoors app released an in-depth infographic that shows last-minute camping options across the U.S., complete with average cloud coverage, crowd predictions and totality duration. It doesn’t give information about availability, but it’s recommended for dispersed backpackers and campers looking for non-reservable spots, many of which are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Developers also added an in-app feature that shows campers whether their wilderness destination is within the path. Cairn has offline maps and uses crowdsourcing to chart cell coverage for an emergency call or a location update.
Throughout his book, Brewer emphasizes that an eclipse really is for everyone. Expert astronomers and everyday stargazers can marvel at the event without special equipment or technical knowledge. But Brewer says there are a few must-have items to bring along when you’re chasing the August eclipse.
Brewer strongly recommends getting a pair of eclipse glasses before making the trip. These inexpensive cardboard eye coverings are essential for watching the partial phases of the eclipse, before and after totality, when the sun is still visible. The spectacles are widely available online, and stores are likely to stock them during the run-up to the event.
Gazing at the sun can do serious eye damage, even if just a tiny sliver of the sun is visible. But don’t leave the glasses on when the sun goes dark.
“During the two minutes or so of totality, you’ll want to make sure you take these things off, so you can actually see the beauty of the solar corona,” he said.
While not exactly necessary, a pair of binoculars will help you see details in the corona during totality. (But don’t look at the sun through binoculars outside of totality unless you put special filters over the lenses.)
Brewer also suggests bringing a bottle of Champagne or an alternate bubbly beverage to celebrate a successful eclipse-viewing expedition, or to drown your sorrows in case the skies are gray.
Why are we so drawn to eclipses?
Brewer isn’t just interested in making sure everyone has a good viewing experience. He also wants to know why human nature keeps us so glued to the skies.
Viewers may get flooded with a range of emotions when seeing the eclipse for the first time, but Brewer narrows it down to one feeling: awe. He says that we experience awe in small doses every day — for example, when a stranger performs a random act of kindness. But Brewer says humans are drawn to eclipses because the feeling is so much more than that.
“When you to see a solar eclipse, you get a huge dose of awe because it’s rare, beautiful, stunning and like nothing you’ve ever seen,” he said.
In his book, Brewer talks about the research behind awe and says that when people experience awe, the body suppresses its fight-or-flight response and releases dopamine.
“Interestingly, humans experience this same pleasant combination of nervous system responses — described as a calm yet energized state — in the moments after intense exercise, for example,” he says in his book.
Brewer has written about eclipses for decades, and he’s given tours around the world to share his passion for totality. He’ll be in Sun Valley, Idaho, for this year’s eclipse — but Seattleites won’t have to go that far to get face-to-face advice. On July 6, he’s scheduled to talk about the eclipse experience at Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
More eclipse readings
If your copy of “Eclipse” is already dog-eared, Brewer has these additional book recommendations for totality fans:
- “Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets”: Get a big-picture view of how eclipses have played a role in science and culture from artist-astronomer Tyler Nordgren.
- “Totality: The Great American Eclipses of 2017 and 2024”: Science writer Mark Littmann teams up with NASA’s Fred Espenak, one of the world’s foremost eclipse experts, on a guidebook that won’t go out of date on Aug. 22.
- “Solar Science: Exploring Sunspots, Seasons, Eclipses, and More”: Science teachers and their middle-school classes will love this book, which includes more than three dozen hands-on activities focusing on solar astronomy. It’s written by science educators Andrew Fraknoi and Dennis Schatz (who serves as senior adviser at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center).
Want to know even more? NASA is planning a series of televised briefings about the total solar eclipse, beginning at 10 a.m. PT June 21. Speakers from NASA and its partners will discuss how scientists will study the eclipse and how the rest of us can watch it safely. Watch the NASA TV briefings online.
So what will the Aug. 21 eclipse look like at your locale? The eclipse simulator on Eclipse Megamovie 2017’s website shows you what you’ll see, and tells you when you’ll see it.
GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor, Alan Boyle, contributed to this report.