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What’s so awe-inspiring about solar eclipses, in one paragraph

“You suddenly feel as though you can see the clockwork of the solar system.”

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

On August 21, the moon will completely block out the sun over a 60-mile-wide path stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. The rest of the country will experience a partial version of this, with the moon blocking 50 percent of the sun or more.

It’s a rare celestial event, and a great excuse to step outside in the summer and get a glimpse of the stars in the middle of the day. But it will be thrilling for reasons that go beyond anomaly. People who have seen total eclipses say the experience moves them deeply and existentially.

I didn’t quite understand until I spoke with Ernie Wright, who creates data visualizations and eclipse maps for NASA. I had called him to talk about the science of predicting eclipses (more on that in a future post).

Our conversation turned to the year 1979, when Wright was 16 years old and his father took the family to see a total solar eclipse in Winnipeg, Canada. Here’s how he described the experience of standing in awe of a blacked-out sun:

You suddenly feel as though you can see the clockwork of the solar system. Where you think you lived doesn’t look like the same place anymore. We kind of know — in the back of our minds — that we live in a giant ball and it revolves around a hot ball of gas, and we’re floating in space. But you don’t really believe it until you see something like a total solar eclipse, where everything is all lined up and you go whoaaa. Other planets pop out. You got instant nighttime. And you can see Mercury and Venus usually. And sometimes Mars and Jupiter. ... It looks like the pictures from the textbook. It’s not entirely a science thing anymore. ... It’s mostly a thing where you have a better appreciation of where you are in the solar system.

It sounds like the experience of traveling to space — and gaining a new perspective on how we’re just a tiny speck in the cosmos — but from the ground.

Wright creates the maps for NASA that show where to best see the eclipse. Read more about his work here.

Watch: How solar and lunar eclipses work