Total Eclipse Of The Mind


Laurence Pevsner is an inaugural Moynihan Public Scholar at the City College of New York. From 2021 to 2023, he was the director of speechwriting for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

By the time you read this, I will be on the west coast of Mexico, hoping to see the sun vanish. The forecast right now is for clouds, which isn’t the kind of disappearance act I’m after. But if we’re lucky enough to get a clear day on April 8, at exactly 9:51:23, I’ll look up as the moon appears to collide with the sun. I’ll spend an hour watching the moon spread its shadow through solar glasses, finally removing them at 11:07:25 when the moment I’ve been waiting for arrives. And then, with naked eyes, despite having witnessed two total solar eclipses before, I don’t know what I’ll see.

I’ve been entranced by solar eclipses ever since I was 14 and read Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall and Other Stories” on my summer camp cot. The titular story is about a planet that has six suns; at least one is in the sky for all people, all the time. Their scientists theorize there might be a couple of other stars beyond their solar system, but that their own world is the focal point. The planet’s constant daylight obscures the truth — that they are in the midst of a 30,000-star cluster.

One day, an undiscovered moon slots into place, setting off an extremely rare three-way solar eclipse that plunges the planet into terrifying darkness. The glittering stars in the black sky reveal to the people that their planet is much less significant than they believed. That, combined with the darkness no one has ever experienced before, causes the whole world to go berserk. Civilization burns itself down as people light fires to stave off the night.

We figure out this is a repeating cycle. The eclipse happens every 2,049 years, but the survivors can’t seem to pass down the story of the moon or the stars or the eclipse far enough to save their descendants. Their society can’t remember anything that long.

The night after I finished the story, I stared at the New Hampshire sky until my eyes hurt. Before “Nightfall,” I’d thought of stars as bright and beautiful pinpricks. Now they appeared as little beacons of hubris. What don’t we know, the story made me wonder — what don’t we remember?

The more you learn about total solar eclipses, the more impossible they seem. For one thing, it is a complete cosmic coincidence that the sun and the moon can appear to be the same size in the sky. The moon happens to be about 400 times smaller than the sun, and the sun happens to be about 400 times further from the Earth than the moon. That happenstance geometry is what allows for a perfect match for our celestial discs, making our solar eclipse unique in the solar system and likely far beyond.

For another thing, our solar eclipses are a coincidence of time: hundreds of millions of years ago, the moon was too close to Earth to produce the spectacle we see now, and around 500 million years from now, it will be too far away. Outside this relatively small window of time, eclipses aren’t as precisely and aesthetically aligned. So we’re living on the perfect planet at the perfect moment to see a near-perfect alignment, this ultimate trick of the light.

Eclipses pose a significant challenge for writers, mostly because they’re hard to describe without sounding like you’re exaggerating. Annie Dillard, in her essay “Total Eclipse,” famously wrote that “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”

“it is a complete cosmic coincidence that the sun and the moon can appear to be the same size in the sky.”

Asimov was himself once asked to provide a non-narrative, scientific description for Look Magazine. He was complimented by his editors for his simple and accurate and beautiful account. “You will see immediately around the black disc of the Moon a pinkish rim,” he wrote. “That is the Sun’s lower atmosphere. It will contain spikes and streamers in graceful arcing curves. … They will fade and grow more delicate until there is the pearly whiteness of the true corona stretching out unevenly from blackness of the covered Sun.”

Just one problem: Unbeknownst to his editors, Asimov had never actually seen a total solar eclipse in person. He admits in his autobiography that he carefully elided the truth; his portrayal was based on what he’d read, not what he’d seen.

In 2017, determined to one-up Asimov, my family arrived in central Wyoming prepared to see and capture the eclipse. Both the seeing and the capturing involve a lot of gear: We lugged two extra suitcases full of specialty solar-filtered binoculars, two stabilizing binoculars with homemade cardboard cutout solar filters you can place over the lenses, three pairs of solar-filter sunglasses for easier viewing, three tripod stands, one laptop, one umbrella and one DSLR camera whose specifications are a complete mystery to me. Together, we unfolded, unscrewed and set the stands in different corners according to my dad’s precise directions. All for an event that lasts less time than it takes to fry an egg.

We did all this advanced prep work because, as my astronomy-obsessed dad has told us many times, something is bound to go wrong, and you don’t want to be fiddling with knobs during those precious 165 seconds. Our plan was to have three cameras capture three different aspects of the experience. The first was just an iPhone, which would take a video of the surrounding environs to capture how quickly the sky goes dark, how the animals freak and flee, how the sun seems to set on every horizon. The second was also an iPhone, turned to face us to record our reactions. 

The big DSLR camera would be taking photos of the eclipse itself. My dad, a software developer, had it hooked up to a computer running a program he tweaked that would automatically make the camera take photos at the exact right moments.

The corona. Taken near La Higuera in Elqui Province, Chile, on July 2, 2019. (Charles Pevsner)

There are two reasons this program is superior to manually operating the camera. The first is that there are certain, precise images that are hard to time by hand that you want to capture, like when the eclipse is seconds away from being full and the jagged and uneven mountains and carved-out craters of the Moon let a few tiny patches of sun escape the Moon’s coverage. Astronomers refer to these as Baily’s beads, after the astronomer Francis Baily, who described them in 1836 as “a row of lucid points, like a string of beads.” When only one or two beads are left, as the last bit of photosphere disappears, a burst of light emits what is known as the “diamond-ring effect.” The name is apt: the ring of light surrounding the moon is capped, for just a fraction of a moment, with what looks like a sparkling jewel.

The second reason for the program is so you can enjoy the eclipse. After all, your eyes will see something far more spectacular than the camera.

But we don’t always remember what we see. The mind plays tricks. Memory is finicky. Do you remember what you were doing five years ago? Two? What about a week ago? What can you recall? Can you remember anything of your inner mind, your thoughts at that time? What were you feeling? What mattered? And even if you thought you did have an inkling, how would you know if you were right?

Personally, I find these questions taxing. Overwhelmed, I want to reach for my phone and look at my calendar, remind myself of my schedule, get a hint as to what was going on. But this, it seems to me, is cheating. And horrifying. I do not remember my own life.

In 2011, while traveling around the U.S. and Canada, the director and entrepreneur Cesar Kuriyama started recording one-second-long video clips each day, which he later stitched together into a 365-second film. One second can feel long or short, and Kuriyama’s video was a mixed procession of the mundane, profane, ordinary and extraordinary. He’s making oatmeal and then he’s at a nightclub and then he’s reading a book and then he’s clicking around on Facebook and then he’s playing minigolf and then he’s spray-painting cars and then and then and then.

A voice comes over the video: “Imagine,” Cesar says, “a movie that includes every day of the rest of your life. … I’ll never forget a day ever again.”

That’s what I wanted.

Still, I was skeptical. What could one second of video really do? As Cesar pointed out in a TED Talk, even one second serves as a powerful stimulus. It’s not just one point — it’s a series. The motion and sound, combined with the image, do much to jog your memory.

When I tried recording one-second video clips during my junior year of college, I sought out flattering footage so that the movie of myself would look cool. This had a salutary effect — it encouraged me to do more cool stuff. It also had the desired effect: Each second I recorded helped me remember far more than that one second. Looking back at the video after six months, I found my memories sharper. More than a decade later, the period is still easier to recall than others.

Every night before I went to bed, I would review that day’s footage and choose a clip. The act of choosing ended up bothering me. Selecting a scene reoriented my memory of the day — that one second became, by default, the day’s most important memory. And sometimes, it was a lie. Clips of book talks or costume parties or studying in the library created a different sense of myself than ones of me refreshing Reddit or playing online chess alone in my dorm.

I quit the project after a year. It made it too tempting to deceive myself about my own life.

Baily’s Beads. Taken near La Higuera in Elqui Province, Chile, on July 2, 2019. (Charles Pevsner)

In Wyoming in the hours before the eclipse, we found ourselves in a field next to a barn among a small community of umbraphiles — lovers of shadows, eclipse chasers. Families spread out, claiming turf. I met an area astronomer, a skinny man with a long white beard, who was fielding questions from other onlookers. I asked: “What does a solar eclipse actually look like?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “This will be my first, so we’ll find out together.”

In the lead-up to the frenetic moments of a total eclipse is the slow march of the partial. The partial starts as the moon kisses the sun and then bites into it, steadily chomping away. Even though it was only midday, the surrounding mountains darkened. We pulled on hats and scarves as the temperature plummeted. We sipped from mugs of now-cold coffee, we kicked at the grass, we observed the way the shadows bounced off the trees and pointed daggers down the mountains. We triple-checked our setup, we looked up through filtered lenses and then glanced at each other. Then there was nothing left to do but watch.

Afterward, everyone had a different description of the total eclipse. My brother said: “It was like someone was waving and bending a metal sheet in the sky!” “A 360-degree sunset,” added my mom. “You turned your head and the pinks and blues and reds came from every direction.”

When it was over, we all gathered around the computer to look at the photos. The main shot was a perfect black disc surrounded by a ring of white glowing light. We’d also successfully captured Bailey’s beads and the elusive diamond ring. My dad’s system had worked. Technically his photos turned out great, professional even.

But they all looked wrong to me. I learned then that all photos of eclipses, just like all written descriptions of them, fail to capture what they really look like to the human eye.

“The image I had in my head — of the shimmering corona, of the infinite sunsets, of the charged light — felt made up when I was looking at genuine photographic evidence of the event.”

Our brains and eyes excel at interpreting scenes that photographers refer to as having high dynamic range — both very bright and very dark objects. If you use the light meter on a camera, you’ll find that it accurately registers the objective brightness of a polished white piece of marble as “darker” if you’re indoors than a pure black chunk of obsidian if you’re outdoors. Our brain’s extremely sophisticated visual system instantly and automatically adjusts the raw input from our eyes to account for this discrepancy, because it knows that black obsidian is dark and the white marble is bright.

Even advanced cameras aided by software fall short. A total solar eclipse presents the ultimate challenge: The corona of the sun is the definition of bright, but it is covered by the pitch-black circle of the moon and surrounded by extraordinarily dim background objects like stars and planets. The contrast between light and dark is at the farthest extremities of dramatic.

After the eclipse, I was flushed, I wanted to do laps around the barn. I felt like I could lift a car. But instead, I tried to sear the memory of what I had seen into my brain; I tried to reimagine what had looked impossible.

But days later, the captured images had merged with my memory, and I felt the original slip away like a mirage. The image I had in my head — of the shimmering corona, of the infinite sunsets, of the charged light — felt made up when I was looking at genuine photographic evidence of the event. I couldn’t tell what my imagination had substituted in, what had been affected by the photos or by our verbal descriptions, what I had forgotten or filled in. Thinking of it now — the most dramatic and affecting experience of the natural world in my life — I have no idea what in my memory is true.

The only solution was to see it again.

Diamond ring. Taken near La Higuera in Elqui Province, Chile, on July 2, 2019. (Charles Pevsner)

The region of the Andean foothills in northern Chile known as the Elqui Valley is famous for four things: pisco and wine distilleries, astrological spirit guides that tell fortunes and offer crystals, the poet Gabriela Mistral, and astronomical research observatories. We didn’t need the observatory telescopes to see the solar eclipse. But of all the spots in the 2019 eclipse’s path of totality, we picked this area for the same reason the researchers did: almost guaranteed clear skies.

What we didn’t account for, though, was a lack of cell service. My dad’s program doesn’t work properly without precise geographic coordinates. We went ahead and set up like we’d practiced, this time with a camera that would record a time-lapse of a digital thermometer to show the dramatic drop in temperature. We then discovered that cell phones can produce your longitude and latitude even without service. After some fussing, everything seemed to work.

We nibbled on saltines. When the partial started, someone came up with the clever idea to poke holes through a piece of paper to spell out our family name. The light-holes that shined through and spelled P-E-V-S-N-E-R each had a chunk taken out of them from the moon. We admired this. The left sides of our own shadows were blurred, the rights still sharp. The mysterious so-called “shadow bands” appeared — slivering, snake-like shades that ripple in rows on the ground, seemingly coming from nowhere. Scientists still can’t explain why this happens, a fact we love telling each other, reassuring ourselves that solar eclipses still hold mysteries.

If you see one total solar eclipse, then you’re someone who has seen one total solar eclipse. If you have seen two, you are an eclipse chaser.

I love the title. Calling it a “chase” adds some drama. It stirs up images of storm chasers with their oversized radios and steel-reinforced jeeps charging toward a tornado. But on my way to Chile, I found myself asking what it was, exactly, that I was chasing.

“No two solar eclipses are alike.”

For a long time, I thought it was my memories. What did I really see? Is my memory true? Can I trust my own mind? But when the total eclipse in Chile slotted into place and the dazzling display began in earnest, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

What I was looking at was not what I had remembered from Wyoming. Nor did it look like the pictures. Nor did it restore my original memory. I knew — with absolute certainty — that what I was looking at was different. The first eclipse had been wavy, broiling, like bright white lava popping and crackling against the sky. This one was calm and sharp, a dramatic relief. In its surprising neatness and definition, it stuck out all the more, as if an impossibly black hole had yawned open over the mountains.

I learned in that moment that no two solar eclipses are alike. Different positions in the sky, different makeups of the atmosphere, different sunspot patterns — all and more combine to create a unique effect, every time.

No two eclipse viewers are alike either. Even as an individual, you’re different each time you see one. You come at it from a different place: different expectations before, different experiences during, different recollections after.

Just as moments in the past can’t be perfectly remembered or recreated, so too nature is ever different. The movement and interactions of species, moons, planets and stars are never the same twice.

What we chase, then, is the next one. We go forward, in hot pursuit of an indescribable, irreproducible experience. Yes, we chase because we are inspired by what we saw once — but really, we chase because we know what’s most important is that we see another.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly noted the time when the moon was too far from or too close to the Earth to produce the eclipses we see today. The text has been updated.