“We’re all together” during a total solar eclipse. That was Mike Kentrianakis’s promise.
It was July 2017, just over a month before the moon was due to pass between the sun and the Earth and cast its long shadow across the width of the continental U.S.
Kentrianakis, who had already witnessed 20 solar eclipses, from every continent except Antarctica, was working on behalf of the American Astronomical Society to ensure his fellow citizens saw the next one.
“Everyone is on the same page,” he said, attempting to describe the indescribable. “There’s no differences. There’s no rich guy, there’s no poor guy, there’s none of that. It’s gone. Ripped and stripped away from every single one of us.”
For a few minutes on Aug 21— at the end of a scorching summer marked by the shooting of Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game, the killing of a counterprotester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, showdowns over health care, immigration and Russian interference, conflict over who gets to be called “American” — Kentrianakis was proved right.
The nation stood united in the shadow of the moon, and we were transformed. At least a little bit.
According to a new survey from the University of Michigan, a stunning 88 percent of American adults — some 216 million people — watched the “Great American Eclipse” in person or electronically. This estimated audience, based on a national probability sample of 2,915 people over 18, was greater than that for the 1969 Apollo 11 landing and each Super Bowl since the contest began. (A 1999 poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans who were age five or older on the day of the moon landing recalled watching the event on television. The most-watched Super Bowl, in 2015, had about 114 million viewers)
“It’s definitely one of the largest ever,” Jon D. Miller, the survey’s organizer and director of Michigan’s International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, said of the eclipse. He and his colleagues sifted through years of television viewership data and other records and couldn’t find evidence of any event in history was witnessed by so many Americans.
Miller has been surveying scientific literacy in the United States for more than 30 years. The results can sometimes be sobering. In 1987, he found that fewer than half of all Americans knew that the Earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do so. That fraction is now slightly greater than six in 10.
But in the months before last year’s eclipse, Americans started doing something exciting: They began looking for facts. Survey respondents engaged in “information acquisition activities” an average of 15 times in the run-up to the event, Miller said, and they continued to expand their understanding in the months afterward. People talked to their friends, their families, their co-workers. They read newspaper articles. They visited their local libraries. Some people even cracked open a book.
It was the most interest in a scientific event that Miller has ever recorded.
He noted that Americans will track political debates and medical breakthroughs because they believe those events might affect their daily lives. But far fewer people see the inner workings of a bacterial cell or the movements of celestial bodies as essential to their understanding of their world. To get people excited about science, Miller has found, you have to make them curious. The 2017 solar eclipse did that like nothing ever before.
Last August, on a college campus in Carbondale, Ill., Haja Goggans stood among a crowd of thousands to watch the sun shrink and then disappear entirely, leaving behind a dark circle ringed by the glittering corona. Their cheers coalesced into a single, ecstatic “woo,” and it took a moment for Goggans to realize she was “wooing” too.
“The only thing we all cared about was the sun, the moon and the sky,” she said later.
The newly-minted high school graduate was about to leave home for a year of living abroad before starting college. This trip to the path of totality was her parents' going-away gift to her.
“I feel more adventurous now,” she said. "Okay, I saw the eclipse. What’s next?”
Of course, it takes more than one moment out of the sun to change a country. Americans' newfound cosmic awareness did not eliminate violence or end political debates. It didn’t revolutionize people’s understanding of their world. At the end of 2017, the fraction of adults who believed the sun circles the Earth — instead of the other way around — was the same as it had been at the beginning of the year: about three in twenty.
Aside from being fairly fundamental science, the relationships between the sun, moon and Earth are essential to understanding why an eclipse happens, Miller pointed out.
“But we did see knowledge gain on other topics,” he said. The percentage of people who could correctly define a total solar eclipse jumped to 70 after the event — a 21 point gain from Miller’s previous survey.
“There’s a certain magical quality about when astronomical kinds of things happen,” Miller said. “Things like the eclipse may stimulate an interest, and people start to discover other things.”