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Speaking of Science: United in the shadow of the moon

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us
 

People watch the Great American Eclipse during a viewing party in Charleston, S.C. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Several months after my little sister was born, my parents gifted a trip to Disney World. I was 3 years old, and apparently enough of a handful that they felt they had to placate me with a personal vacation now that I was no longer the sole focus of their attention.

I don't remember much about the trip, but my parents have recounted this story enough times that I know the highlight was the Character Breakfast. This is the event at which families pay way too much money to chew on rubbery pancakes while waiting for someone dressed like Donald Duck or Cinderella to come over and give their toddler a high five.

My idol was Minnie Mouse, and I pretty much ignored every other character until she finally approached our table.

"Hello little girl!" said the 20-something inside the giant mouse costume. It was the moment I'd been waiting for.

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Completely overcome with emotion, I burst into tears.

Some 22 years later, on a sweltering day last August, I stood on a college campus in southern Illinois and saw my first total solar eclipse. I'd been anticipating the event for months, writing story after story about the science behind the phenomenon, interviewing eclipse chasers about the feeling that compelled them to follow the moon's shadow across the globe. Now, right before my eyes, the sun was shrinking to a sliver, the air was turning cool, and stars began to light up the violet sky.

And then, two minutes of totality.

I have no words for the feeling. It was an instant, all-encompassing awareness of two seemingly contradictory truths: I am nothing, just a fleeting collection of carbon atoms on an unimportant rock in a far-flung wing of a run-of-the-mill galaxy. And at the same time, I am here, bearing witness to the universe at work.

"I feel shivers," I told my co-workers on a live stream The Washington Post produced for the event. "We're seeing it! And you can see... you can..." I gasped. "Sorry, I'm really overwhelmed."

 

Later, my dad, who was watching the live stream, texted me: "I thought it was going to be another Minnie Mouse moment. But you held it together."

"Just barely," I laughed. "Next time," (the U.S. will see another eclipse in 2024, FYI) "I want you to come, too."

I didn't tell him that as soon as the live stream was over, I hugged the video journalist who was helping produce it and cried as I thanked her for being there with me. I wanted to hug everyone else I'd talked to that day — the couple who drove all the way from Baltimore to be there, the two sisters who showed me how they made pinhole projectors from cereal boxes — but figured it was probably not the professional thing to do as a journalist.

I've been thinking about that day a lot lately. Tuesday, I wrote about a survey that found a staggering 88 percent of U.S. adults watched last year's eclipse, either in person or electronically. That means some 200 million people shared a piece of my experience. I know at least some of them responded just as emotionally as I did; when the sun re-emerged over Illinois, I saw plenty of people exchanging hugs and wiping away tears.

"It was a shared experience, it was really cool," one of my neighbors at the eclipse watching event told me. "You hope that maybe someone has better thoughts about humanity after seeing that."

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It's a cliche, but I really do believe there is something about awareness of the cosmos that makes everyone on Earth feel closer. It's a reminder of how inconsequential we all are. And how precious. It's a feeling that makes you want to share it.

Meeting Minnie Mouse, apparently, can achieve something similar. After the breakfast, my parents asked me what I made of the emotional experience.

"It was so good," was my reply. "Next time, can the baby come, too?"

— Sarah Kaplan

 
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