On the scale of celestial time, the eclipse that will sweep across the United States on Monday is less than a blink. It’s less than a thought about a blink, less than the firing of a synapse in a thought about a blink over the length of a person’s life. It’s just a moment in which one rock passes between a star and another rock, a thing that, as far as we know, might happen millions of times a day in millions of hidden places across the universe. There may be thousands of other Americas on thousands of other planets right now in which the sky is growing dark. The scale of everything is so big that, by comparison, the scale of any of our individual things is always infinitely small.
Even in the scale of the globe, though, this eclipse is not unusual. As professional buzzkill Neil deGrasse Tyson noted on Twitter last week, there are solar eclipses somewhere on the planet every two years or so. Time magazine ran through a number of those that are upcoming for the next 50 years; there are, indeed, a lot.
But Monday’s eclipse is a bit like having the Olympics in your hometown or having your favorite sports team play in your back yard. Sure, you can see your favorite team play any time you want or go to the Olympics once every four years. Having it happen here, though? That’s something unusual.
When considering an eclipse, it’s hard not to think of it within the context of that grand sweep of time, as a road marker on a highway that extends further back and further into the future than any of us will experience. We’re not alone in finding deGrasse Tyson’s eclipse-hipsterism as missing the point; the advent of an eclipse in the United States has consistently spurred thoughts about what our lives and our nation will look like the next time the moon’s shadow passes overheard.
Gizmodo’s Matt Novak, whose specialty is diving into America’s informal archives, tweeted a snippet of a television broadcast from 1979, when an eclipse passed over the United States.
"May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace." ABC News report from February 26, 1979 about the world of August 21, 2017 pic.twitter.com/oRK0mwAoLm
— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) August 18, 2017
That “world at peace” invocation is both a generic secular appeal and a very specific artifact of the Cold War. The oscillations in peace and war, safety and danger that followed between 1979 and 2017 were unpredictable, certainly, and whether we’re in one of the calmer valleys is hard to gauge without knowing what lies ahead. But world peace generally, like flying cars, will have to wait for some future eclipse event.
The year 1979 now seems tangibly close in the way that 40 years in the past seems but 40 years in the future doesn’t. When I was a kid, the year 2000 was hopelessly distant, a whole new era in which even the way we described the names of the years needed to be rethought — and that was in the 1980s.
For Americans in 1979, 2017 was a foreign land. For Americans in 1932, reading about an eclipse in the year 2017 must have been like talking to them about 2300. What will the world be like in 2100? That is as distant to us now as 2017 was to them then, making our current year an effective proxy for The Distant Future. Ten or 15 years from now is generally imaginable. Anything past that is a blend of pointy rockets, cyberbrains and annihilation. Conceivable but intangible. A million extrapolations outward from life now, all of which miss the mark.
From 1932, the New York Times:
(Do notice the other pressing news of the day: A guide dog who got a medal.)
Fifteen years prior, another eclipse swept across the United States, and, again, 2017 was the distant landmark used to anchor the event’s rarity. On the front page of the Topeka State Journal, a brief item about the day’s celestial events, the next time one would pass overhead — and updates on American troop movements in what was not yet referred to as World War I.
There are about 130,000 Americans who were alive then and are still living, although, of course, nearly all of them were too young at the time to remember it now.
The blog Yesterday’s Print, which posts snippets of old news articles, has unearthed a number of examples of the 2017 eclipse being used as a marker of an inconceivably distant future.
From a newspaper in Coudersport, Pa., in 1925:
And from the Post-Crescent in 1932 in Appleton, Wis.:
That’s really the heart of the thing, isn’t it? The next eclipse will be in this distant year — assuming that the world hasn’t been destroyed or that the sun hasn’t vanished in a disintegrating flash. That was the subtext to that ABC News report, too: The next eclipse will be in 2017, unless, of course, nuclear war erupts.
The eclipse is an exceptional thing happening to endlessly predictable objects that govern our lives, the sun and the moon. It’s a reminder that exceptional things can happen on Earth, too, not all of them good. It’s a reminder that, sure, the sweep of time is incomprehensible, but that, at least for our little stretch of it, we’ve managed to survive.
Here’s hoping people in the future will, too.