NASHVILLE — As the sun emerged from behind a cloud, Erik Peterson donned his eclipse glasses and directed his children’s eyes to the sky.
“It’s started,” said an awed Peterson as he and his daughter Greta, 13, and son Will, 10, gazed at a sun slowly diminishing from its upper-right side.
The Petersons were among the more than 5,800 visitors who filed into the Nashville Zoo as of noon Monday, with thousands more expected by the time totality began at about 1:30 p.m.
For many of the parents in attendance, the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States in a century not only provided a teachable moment for their kids but also forced some reflection on their own mortality.
“It’s been 100 years since the last one, and I thought the chances of me getting to see another one are pretty slim,” said Brian Magie, a 50-year-old account executive in Dallas. “It’s hard to reference this type of thing.”
Magie said his two daughters already had grown “sick” of the science lessons he had given them in advance of their one-night trip to Nashville, but he expected they ultimately will cherish the experience. For the moment, they were visiting zoo exhibits and grabbing lunch while their father set up a high-end camera with a telephoto lens and special filter to capture the entirety of the eclipse.
“We’re here because of me. They’re tagging along. But I think they’re going to be happy they were here,” Magie said. “We were talking about it today, and I think the magnitude of it once we see it — we’re going to feel pretty small.”
The Peterson children, meanwhile, were positively giddy in their eclipse T-shirts as they debated which animals they wanted to be near when totality hit. Their enthusiasm flowed from their father, a history of science professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, who took them out of school for the day.
“Humans have been interested in eclipses for thousands of years,” said Peterson, 42. “This is a moment in human history to pay attention to a phenomenon that connects us to all these events in the past.”
Peterson’s history of science course begins with a discussion of eclipses and a Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, who is reported to have accurately predicted an eclipse in 585 B.C.
“This is one of the first moments we have recorded when someone is saying events like this are natural and don’t necessarily have supernatural meanings,” he said. “The gods aren’t mad at us or something. It’s a huge milestone in science.”