Monday’s solar eclipse was truly an American experience, visible as a partial eclipse from all 50 states and as a total eclipse from a 70-mile-wide sliver of 14 states. While total solar eclipses occur somewhere on Earth about every 18 months, it has been 38 years since the last total solar eclipse passed through the United States, and 99 years since the last coast-to-coast eclipse.
And this eclipse was certainly historic. While it’s impossible to know exactly how many people saw it, the Associated Press is reporting that it was the most observed and most photographed eclipse in history. That squares with what Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society predicted last week.
At a NASA briefing in June, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate, said that it is ultimately impossible to judge the relative audience of the 2017 eclipse.
"My personal feeling is that it will be the most watched," Zurbuchen said at the time, citing the many ways it would be available both in person and online, "but I can't prove that scientifically. We don't have really hard numbers on any [previous eclipses].”
What we do have is these numbers:
- A CNN poll earlier this month indicated that about half of the US population (323.1 million in 2016) planned to watch the eclipse.
- About 12 million people live in the solar eclipse’s 70-mile-wide path of totality, which stretched from the Northwest in Oregon to the Southeast in South Carolina. There were predictions that 2 million to 7 million of the 200 million people who live within a day’s drive to the path of totality would make the trek to see it there too.
- Others suggested that even 20 million might be a conservative estimate for how many people would watch from the path.
- NASA reported that at the midpoint of its live stream today, 4.4 million people were watching, making the eclipse the most viewed event in the agency’s history.
(We’ll be updating this post as more estimates roll in.)
Chief among those excited and engaged in the eclipse were young people. CNN’s poll found people’s excitement about the eclipse to be consistently inversely correlated with age.
Hundreds of students participated today in an array of citizen science projects to photograph and document the event. This is an “incredible opportunity to excite and inspire future scientists as so many of these volunteers and students are just getting introduced to science,” France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, wrote for HuffPost.
Rick Yeames, an amateur astronomer from New Hampshire who traveled to Casper, Wyoming, to view the eclipse, likened the event to the Apollo space program in its potential to inspire young people with science. “Millions of American children just had a life-changing experience that could inspire them to get into STEM,” he said.