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5 winners and 3 losers from the total solar eclipse

Sweet respite from politics.
Montana State University

For a mere hour and 33 minutes on Monday, the United States was the chosen place where the new moon’s shadow fell as it aligned with the sun.

This total solar eclipse wasn’t just a celestial event, it was a huge opportunity for science education and money-making that America seized with gusto. Towns, cities, planetariums, NASA, and businesses large and small planned for months if not years, and invested heavily to make it possible for people to watch and enjoy it.

And while overall we all came out ahead, the eclipse turned out better for some than others. Here are five winners and three losers from the biggest astronomy event of the year.

Winner: science

Science — the scientific method and the institutions and people doing science — is a bit beleaguered these days, especially in Washington, DC. The Trump administration is slashing budgets and staffs, disbanding scientific advisory committees, and thumbing its nose at the consensus on climate change.

But science sparkled on Monday, and helped us appreciate the spectacle in the sky. Our government space agency, NASA, told us when to expect the eclipse, made some terrific maps, prepared us for the disorienting sight of the sun’s corona, and took jaw-dropping pictures and video with telescopes, research aircraft, and balloons. Local planetariums grabbed the chance to give out glasses, and school the public on the solar system.

Even President Donald Trump stepped outside with Melania to see the eclipse, though, true to form, he did exactly the opposite of the scientific advice and, at least briefly, looked directly at the sun.

The Bailey’s beads effect photographed from the ground during the total eclipse on August 21.
Montana State University

For many onlookers, understanding the total solar eclipse meant digging up buried memories from elementary school science class. (In case yours didn’t surface, a total solar eclipse needs three things: a new moon, the moon crossing the plane of Earth’s orbit, and the moon at just the right distance from the Earth.)

I watched the total eclipse on a mountain outside Casper, Wyoming with several amateur astronomers who’d chosen Casper as the place to be for its reliably clear skies. On Sunday night, they patiently explained to 150 or so of us campers the significance of what was about to happen, demonstrating the scale of the sun relative to the earth and the moon with a beach ball, a peppercorn, and a $5 bill.

“You are going to stand in the shadow of the moon!” amateur astronomer Ian Dix of Denver boomed. “How many people can say that? It will be like seeing the eye of God.” He and the other astronomers let us look through their telescopes, pointing to features of the sun only visible in an eclipse.

Scientists’ incredibly precise predictions of the eclipse might have also helped fortify their stature in the minds of those inclined to doubt them. As James Hamblin so saliently captured in his satirical “Eclipse Conspiracy” piece in the Atlantic, we can’t take for granted anymore that scientists and their math will be trusted. But this eclipse showed up on schedule, exactly as advertised, proving scientists so very right.

Winner: towns and cities in the path of totality

The path of the total eclipse, which sliced diagonally from Oregon to South Carolina, was remarkable in that it avoided most major cities entirely, with the exception of Nashville, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

Instead, it graced dozens of small towns in 14 states, towns that for the most part reveled and cashed in on the chance to attract visitors who wanted to stare at their parcel of sky. They threw festivals, allowed vendors free reign of the streets, and jacked up hotel rates. When it was all over, the mayor of Franklin, North Carolina, population 4,000, ruled it was the largest event the town has ever hosted.

The town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, population 32,000, boasted the longest totality (two minutes and 41 seconds) in the country, and expected as many as 500,000 visitors. For the event, it spent heavily in hopes of reaping $50 million in return, rebranding itself Eclipseville, and hiring a Solar Eclipse Coordinator to prepare for the crowds. While it’s too soon to know if the eclipse was the cash cow locals hoped for, the extravaganza wasn’t a bust — tourists showed up and were rewarded with a very special show.

Several other small towns hosted thousands of chasers — thanks in part to the Great American Eclipse website recommending them as viewing sites. They included:

  • Madras, Oregon
  • Menan, Idaho
  • Casper, Wyoming (I attended its excellent Wyoming Eclipse Festival)
  • Glendo, Wyoming
  • Alliance, Nebraska
  • Marshall, Missouri
  • St. Joseph, Missouri
  • Lebanon, Tennessee

“We’ve actually been planning for this for three years,” Brenda Hagen, the town clerk of Glendo, Wyoming, told FiveThirtyEight. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for us.”

The moon transiting across the sun captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light on August 21.

Loser: people outside the path of totality

Let’s be clear: A partial solar eclipse is a wonderful spectacle. You get to see the weird shape of the sun partially blacked out by the moon. The light gets dark and moody. And you get shadows forming eerie crescent shapes.

But there is a genuinely big difference between standing in a partial eclipse — even one when 99 percent of the sun’s disc is covered — and a total solar eclipse of 100 percent blockage.

I experienced totality for the first time yesterday in Wyoming, and it was as dazzling and exulting as the eclipse chasers promised.

To ready us for the precious, fleeting moments to come, an eclipse veteran near me shouted out a countdown: “20 minutes to totality! 10 minutes to totality! 4 minutes to totality.”

And when the sun was covered, its wispy, bulging corona was finally there to see, 10 times as beautiful as the pictures. The sunset colors dancing around the horizon (at 11:42 a.m.) and the sudden coolness of the air made it all the more transportative. We shrieked with glee and we wept. And then the two minutes and 36 seconds were gone.

If you didn’t get to experience totality this year, take heart. Another solar eclipse will be passing through the United States in 2024. Or if you’re seriously jonesing, you can plan to be in Chile or Argentina on July 2, 2019, when the next total solar eclipse on Earth comes through.

Winner: Bonnie Tyler

The last total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States was in 1979. Four years later, Bonnie Tyler released “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a sappy earworm of a ballad that’s survived as an ‘80s classic and a karaoke favorite.

Though she’s gotten a lot of mileage from the song, remixing and rerecording it over the years, Tyler must have been waiting patiently for 2017, when we’d suddenly want to play her epic tune on repeat again.

And indeed we did. According to Billboard, digital download sales of the song increased by 503 percent in the week ending August 20. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos reported, the song leapt to the No. 1 slot on iTunes.

Pandora meanwhile said Monday that “Total Eclipse of the Heart” had spiked 4,136 percent in spins on their music listening service. Bonnie Tyler also leapt 470 percent in artist station adds.

And for a lucky few aboard a Royal Caribbean’s Total Eclipse cruise on Monday, Tyler performed the song live alongside DNCE during totality.

Winner: transportation officials

The weeks leading up the eclipse were a frenzy of traffic fearmongering.

While 12 million people live in the solar eclipse’s path of totality, some 2 million to 7 million of the 200 million people who live within a day’s drive to the path were expected to travel by road to see it there too.

And so transportation officials in places like Denver and Seattle, wary of drivers heading north to Wyoming and south to Oregon, warned early and often of traffic, urging people to plan ahead. National Park Service officials concerned about clogged roads inside parks like Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone told visitors to come early and expect traffic too.

Monday did bring some bottlenecks on the major highways heading to and from the path of totality, and particularly out of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. But there were few reports of people stuck in cars missing the eclipse. It seems most who traveled to the path by car planned ahead enough to make it in and out just fine. Transportation officials get some credit for that.

Loser: people who were sold counterfeit eclipse glasses

The great scandal of the Great American Eclipse was the counterfeit viewing glasses made with subpar solar filters that were sold to thousands of people by shady online dealers.

“The market has been overrun with counterfeits and fakes, and many of them were being sold on Amazon,” Richard Fienberg, a spokesperson for the American Astronomical Society, told the Washington Post. “It’s become a complete freaking mess.”

Amazon ultimately recalled pairs that didn’t meet international standards for solar viewing (or whose manufacturer didn’t provide proper documentation). But many eclipse enthusiasts found themselves scrambling at the last minute to find glasses and viewers made by reputable vendors.

Hopefully no one burned a hole in their eyeball on account of the fake glasses.

Clouds at 1 p.m. on Monday.

Loser: places covered by clouds

Several cities, including Houston, the Twin Cities, and Chicago, that got partial eclipses reported that clouds almost entirely obscured their view.

This is a huge bummer. But clouds were particularly devastating to people on the path of totality. Some prepared for months, traveled hundreds of miles, and didn’t get to see it.

We don’t have a full list of towns in the path whose views were blocked by clouds, but it seems they were lurking around Lancaster, Kansas, Nashville, and Charleston, South Carolina.

My colleague Casey Miller, who built our phenomenal eclipse interactive, traveled all the way from New York to Charleston, only to have clouds get in between her and the eclipse.

Still, a few spookily beautiful photographs emerged from Charleston; it apparently was visible to some:

Winner: America

The timing of the so-called Great American Eclipse was very good for America. For many who caught the spectacle, it provided a sweet, collective reprieve from the political chaos that’s been manically unspooling the past several months. The sun and the solar system are majestic in their vastness and their grand, reliable cycles. That can be a peaceful realization in a time of unrest.

The astronomical diversion allowed for awe to usurp angst. Delight edged out despair. The sidewalks were “filled with smiles!”

Whether we saw a total eclipse or a partial eclipse, outdoors or online, millions of Americans (and a few tourists from abroad) took in this brief celestial marvel.

We stood side-by-side in our yards and public parks. We watched in small towns we’d never set foot in before along the path of totality. Or we were one of the 4.4 million viewers glued to NASA’s ace footage, shot by research aircraft zooming alongside the eclipse, from our offices and homes.

Some eclipse chasers had been planning trips for months or even years. Others only found out the eclipse was coming to town in the past couple days. No matter — it was a free show courtesy of the cosmos, open to all, requiring no more than a set of sunlight filtering glasses.

And many people were genuinely thankful for it. At an outdoor Episcopalian service I attended on Sunday atop the mountain outside Casper, the deacon asked if anyone wanted to say a prayer. “I’m so grateful for this eclipse, and for the chance get away from the crazy, crazy world,” was one woman’s contribution.

As Deb Pincus, 56, of Charlotte, North Carolina eloquently put it to my colleague Brian Resnick in South Carolina, “I don’t want to be trite, but just the awe to remind you how small you are, and how huge the universe is, and how much beauty there is. It’s easy to get caught up in all this crap that’s going on in the world.”


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