How to make the most of next week's solar eclipse : Solar eclipse 2024: Follow the path of totality : Short Wave On April 8, the moon will slip in front of the sun, blocking its light and creating an eerie twilight in the middle of the day. Stars will come out, the air will get cold, colors will dance around the horizon. It's a full-body experience born from the total solar eclipse that will be visible from North America. Today on the show, Regina G. Barber talks to NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce about why some people say this experience is one of the most beautiful celestial events you can see – and how to prepare for it. Want more ways to enjoy the eclipse? Check out Regina's interview with an eclipse chaser on NPR's Life Kit podcast. Share your eclipse stories with us at shortwave@npr.org! We'd love to see it!

How to make the most of next week's solar eclipse

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

REGINA BARBER, HOST:

Hey, SHORT WAVErs, Regina Barber here, and today, we're going to talk about something so surreal it makes people react like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL KIDS SCREAMING)

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: So this is the sound of a bunch of school kids running around in the dark during a total solar eclipse all the way back in August of 2017. And as you know, a total eclipse is when the moon slips in front of the sun, blocks its light, and you get this eerie twilight in the middle of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You can - oh, you can kind of see the ring in the sun.

BARBER: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR science correspondent, this tape is from the last total solar eclipse that came across the states. I missed that one. I totally regret it. But you were there. How was it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So I saw it in a different spot than that tape. I saw it in South Carolina. But yeah, it was a brief period of time, but it was super intense and everyone reacted. Everyone just kind of erupted. It was people screaming. It was, you know, people running around.

BARBER: Yeah. And people are going to be, like, erupting soon. I'm going to get another chance because there's a total solar eclipse coming to the United States on April 8. Right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. Yeah. And so we should talk about it and what's different this time around plus the stuff that's going to be the same, like the need for eye protection, which is super important if you're thinking about eclipse gazing.

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BARBER: OK. So today on the show, why some people say a total solar eclipse is one of the most beautiful celestial events you can ever see...

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BARBER: ...That it can be almost spiritual or even life-changing. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.

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BARBER: OK. Now, this eclipse is happening April 8. Depending on where you are in North America, it could be a partial eclipse, it could be a total eclipse. So where will people be able to see a total solar eclipse?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the total solar eclipse will be seen from a ribbon of land that's about 100 miles wide. And it stretches all the way from Texas north to Maine. And in that area of land, if there's no clouds, that's where people will be able to see a total eclipse. And so a total eclipse, depending on where you are, lasts only about, like, four minutes, maybe less. But everywhere that's not in that ribbon of land is only going to see a partial eclipse, which frankly, does not look like much. In fact, you know, most of the time, if you did not know a partial eclipse was happening, you would not notice it.

BARBER: I mean, I am getting more and more excited to see this total solar eclipse, 'cause I did see the partial eclipse in 2017. It did get a little dimmer, but basically the sun looked like it was a crescent, like the moon was taking a bite out of it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. Yeah. And you had to look at that with eclipse glasses, right?

BARBER: Yeah. I remember because I was in an area that was a pretty high percentage partial eclipse, it did get kind of, like, dawn-like a little bit, but I could tell that some people were like, well, now I don't have to use my eye protection anymore. But no, that was not the case.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So, I mean, it is never safe to look at any part of the exposed sun without eye protection. Like, you know, with just 1% of the sun exposed, you still have to wear eye protection...

BARBER: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Or you're going to damage your eyes. You're going to get, like, a little injury inside your eye that is literally shaped like a tiny crescent. In fact, I've talked to experts who say that sometimes if you look at the damage in someone's eye, you can even tell, like, what phase of the eclipse they were looking at because...

BARBER: Oh, my gosh.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...That's how it looks in your eye.

BARBER: I do remember that image of then-President Trump, like, looking at the eclipse without glasses on. Like, how many people do you think did that, too?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, no one knows, and no one knows how many people damaged their eyes. I talked with this guy, Ralph Chou. He's an eclipse chaser, who also is an eye specialist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He said there were probably less than a hundred reported cases. And so, remember, more than 150 million people...

BARBER: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Looked at the partial or total eclipse directly back in 2017.

BARBER: I mean, so it doesn't sound like it was, like, common. But it still is serious.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. For the people it happened to, it's a big deal. I mean, Ralph told me that if you just take one quick peek, probably nothing will happen. But it adds up. I mean, if you keep peeking, if you take more glances...

BARBER: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...The light exposure gets worse and worse. And at some point, you tip over a threshold where the light-sensitive part of your retina actually is damaged. And, you know, Ralph was telling me the damage doesn't become apparent until hours later.

RALPH CHOU: So typically, what will happen is you look at the eclipse as it is happening without protection. Your eyes don't appear to be damaged. You know, everything's fine. The next morning, you wake up. And when you look in the bathroom mirror or you look across the breakfast table at your nearest and dearest, you suddenly realize you can't see their face.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's just extreme blurriness in your field of vision. And a lot of the time, it's permanent.

BARBER: OK. This is, like, very alarming. And it makes me want to, like, double-check that these eclipse glasses that, you know, I get, that my friends are getting, are, like, legit. Like, how do we know these are good solar glasses?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the American Astronomical Society actually has a list of vetted sources on their website. And I would buy from those sources and no other. But, you know, if you have some and you want to sort of, you know, understand, like, is this real? - you can sort of test them at home by looking at a really bright light with them on. And you shouldn't be able to see it, or you should maybe be able to see only, like, a very dim image of it.

But, you know, some people will just not feel comfortable with any eclipse glasses. And I get that because, you know, you don't want to risk your eyes. And you can still enjoy a partial eclipse, though. I mean, you can do what's called pinhole projection. So basically, instead of looking at the sun, you stand with your back to the sun, and you let the sun's light sort of shine over your shoulder. And you let it shine through something that has lots of little holes, like - you know, like, a pasta colander or, like, a straw hat. And if you do that, like, down on the ground, you know, you'll see little crescent suns that are projected down there.

BARBER: But if you're in a spot with a total eclipse, when the sun is completely covered by the moon, at that moment, you should take off your glasses.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. So if you're in a spot where you can see the total phase of the eclipse where the moon is totally covering the sun, you should take your glasses off...

BARBER: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Because it is so dim that if you are wearing your eclipse glasses at that point, you will not see it. So you need to keep your glasses on until the last little crescent of sun gets broken up into pieces, like, little points of light. These are called Baily's beads. And what it is, it's the sun coming through, like, literally, like, mountains sticking up on the moon, right? And so once the moon finishes sliding over and those little, like, pieces of light disappear, you can take the glasses off. Enjoy the scene. But then once any part of the bright sun comes back, you have to put the glasses back on.

BARBER: OK. So the United States went through this seven years ago. How will this eclipse be different?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for one thing, it's happening in April rather than August. And so that means you've got more kids in school. The weather might be iffier. You know, you've got that expression - April showers bring May flowers. That's not so cool for eclipse-watching, because if it's an overcast day and it's a total eclipse, it will get noticeably dark, but you won't be able to see, you know, the corona around the sun. You won't see the sun appear in the sky as this black void.

The other big difference is that this time the path of totality, as it's called, goes through more urban areas. And so that means more people may see the total phase of the eclipse. But also, in some cities, like, San Antonio, Texas, for example, the difference between seeing a partial eclipse and seeing a total eclipse could be just driving across town.

BARBER: Wow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So educators this time around are really trying to emphasize that it is really worth making the effort to get into totality. Like, I was talking to Michelle Nichols. She's director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

MICHELLE NICHOLS: People go to see total solar eclipses to get the full experience - 99% will not give you the full experience. Drive those last few miles.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: On the other hand, you got to think about traffic. Traffic could be a big deal.

BARBER: Literally, that was the reason I didn't go in 2017, 'cause I heard there'd be a ton of traffic jams. But OK, let's talk about people who are undeterred by traffic, by distance. These are eclipse chasers. You know, the people who go around the world to see total eclipses all the time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right, because there is one on average, like, every 18 months that's visible from someplace on Earth. You know, I've heard people refer to this eclipse that's happening on April 8 as, like, a once-in-a-lifetime event. It truly is not. I mean, there are people who have seen, you know, a dozen or more, you know, 20 eclipses. They just travel all over the place to see them wherever they're visible.

BARBER: Yeah. Obviously, these eclipse chasers are, like, really into this. They describe it as this life-changing experience for them. But, like, how common is that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's a good question because some of the eclipse chasers really remember seeing a total eclipse when they were a child and it affected them. And so I especially wanted to talk to kids. And I asked them, you know, what they remembered and what they thought in terms of whether it changed them. And it was kind of funny. You know, a lot of them didn't remember much or maybe they remembered something like the nighttime insects that started making noise. This one senior in high school I talked to in Lodi, Wis., he saw it just after fifth grade. His name is George Brewheh (ph). He described it as a wake-up call.

GEORGE BREWHEH: I think it just kind of brought perspective because it's not something you see, you know, every day, obviously. So it just kind of brought the perspective of, like, you know, there's more out there than you see every day, every year, you know, so it just kind of broadened the horizons and perspectives on literally everything.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But most of the kids I asked, honestly, like, they thought it was really cool, but it didn't seem like a life-transforming event for them.

BARBER: Right. I mean, they're still young, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. I mean, it's possible you can only know in retrospect.

BARBER: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like, I talked to this space physicist. Her name's Laura Peticolas. She's at Sonoma State University. I mean, her dad took her to see an eclipse when she was, like, 9 years old in 1979.

BARBER: Cool.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And she said it wasn't, like, a spiritual moment or anything. In fact, she remembers almost nothing about the actual moment of the eclipse. But on the other hand, she said...

LAURA PETICOLAS: I do know that after that, I really was starting to think about what exists in the universe that we can't see. And I used to just wonder about that. This was before I decided I wanted to be a physicist. And then I learned that's what physicists do. And I was so excited.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So make of it what you will. All I can say is I'm going to try to see it, and I'm totally going to bring my kids. What about you? You said you regretted missing it last time.

BARBER: Yes. I've been thinking about this for many years now, and I'm going to drive to Buffalo with my daughter and my partner and just hope that the weather holds.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, afterwards, we can compare notes and you can tell me, you know, was it life-changing or what.

BARBER: Yeah. I mean, I will definitely do that because the next time a total solar eclipse will be seen from the U.S. is in 20 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, but that one will really only be seen from a few sparsely populated northern states like, you know, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota. I mean, you can go there, but you'll have to wait 20 years.

BARBER: Like you said, the one on April 8 is going to be visible in a lot of urban areas, so I hope many people look up. I hope the weather will be great so people are actually able to see it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. That would be rocking.

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BARBER: I also dove into a ton of tips and tricks for seeing the eclipse for an episode of NPR's LIFE KIT podcast. We'll put a link to it in our episode notes. This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and Rachel Carlson, edited by our showrunner Rebecca Ramirez, and Nell checked the facts. The audio engineer was David Greenberg. I'm Regina Barber. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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