How, and why, to see the total eclipse

Steven Kawaler has been looking forward to Monday since July 10, 1972.

That's the day the Iowa State astronomy professor, then a 14-year-old at astronomy camp, saw his first total solar eclipse. He caught a few seconds of totality -- the moment when the moon is completely blotting out the sun -- before the clouds rolled in. And those few seconds caught the self-assured teenage scientist by surprise.

"I was convinced I would be looking at this thing with an analytic view and be enjoying it for the rarity of the event. But it got scary. It really did," Kawaler said. "The fight or flight reflex was starting to rear its head. What if the sun doesn't come back? Do I need to go someplace safe? Do I need to store food? That kind of thing."

Seven years later as an undergraduate, Kawaler's second total eclipse came with sunnier skies. He didn't figure he'd have the same reaction. He was wrong.  

"You, as a living entity, come to expect the sun when it's up in the middle of the day not to go anywhere," he said. "Even though you know precisely what is happening and can do the calculations to predict it even, which I could by that time, you still feel this combined sense of dread and wonder."

Since then, Kawaler has realized the power of the sight of a disappearing sun. Colleagues who have seen a dozen have told him they get the same feeling every time. "There's no way around it. It's one of the wonderful things about how the human mind -- and maybe soul – works. It recognizes the uniqueness of this event," he said.

Kawaler hopes as many human minds as possible recognize the uniqueness of the event Aug. 21 and make plans to travel a few hours southwest, where the coast-to-coast path of totality will clip the southwest corner of Iowa as it passes about an hour south of Omaha and just north of Kansas City. It will be the first total solar eclipse in 99 years to track across the continental United States and the first visible in any part of the lower 48 since 1979.

Here are a few things to know, courtesy of Kawaler and Charles Kerton, associate professor of astronomy.

Don't look

Don't gaze directly at the eclipse -- other than the couple minutes at most of totality, which won't happen in Ames -- unless you have specially designed glasses. It can cause serious eye damage.

Several local retailers have been selling the glasses, though they might be sold out. Be sure to confirm glasses are made by a reputable manufacturer. A safe pair should be so dark normal light doesn't shine through them. Otherwise, there are numerous ways to project an image of the eclipsed sun with a homemade pinhole camera. 

Just try

Yes, it's on the first day of fall classes. Many hotels and campgrounds along the path have been booked for years. The traffic will be epic.

But the difference between spotting a partial solar eclipse and experiencing a total solar eclipse is like the difference between reading a recipe online for Kraft macaroni and cheese and having Gordon Ramsay cook a three-course meal in your kitchen, Kawaler said.

"Try to see it. You've got to try," he said.  

Partial plan

If you can't travel to see totality, make plans to see the partial eclipse.

In the Ames area, the eclipse will begin in the southern sky at 11:42 a.m., as the curve of the moon begins advancing across the sun from the upper right. The peak locally will be at 1:08 p.m., with 93 percent of the sun blocked out and just a sliver of the top of its face showing. A portion of the sun will continue to be covered until 2:33 p.m.

Reiman Gardens is hosting a viewing party starting at 11 a.m., which requires preregistration. A limited number of glasses will be available, with the support of the Ames Area Amateur Astronomers. Light refreshments will be served, but guests can bring their own lunch.

The Ames Public Library will be showing NASA's live coverage of the eclipse starting at 11 a.m., which also will be available online.

What to expect

A 93 percent eclipse won't mean it'll be 93 percent darker outdoors. The difference in sunlight will be nearly imperceptible, so monitoring the sun safely is the only way to take it in.

"Even with that amount of coverage, the sun is just so bright," Kerton said

It might be noticeable after coming from inside a building, before pupils adjust, he said.  

If you're on campus, there will be another way to know something special is happening. To commemorate the occasion, Monday's carillon concert at 11:50 a.m. -- the first after it was out of commission for the summer for repairs -- will include some eclipse-themed music.

Faculty flocking

Many Iowa State faculty, including most astronomy professors, plan to trek south to experience the total eclipse. That's why they aren't hosting any viewing events, Kerton said. The totality path is just too close to pass up.

"It's hard to beat, compared to the typical globetrotting efforts that are required to see these things," said Kerton, who hasn't seen a total eclipse before.

For some types of astronomers, the eclipse is a ripe time for researching the corona, the outermost layer of the sun's atmosphere unveiled to the naked eye only during an eclipse. It provides a brief window to study the corona's lowest levels, furthering understanding of the magnetized burps of plasma that erupt from the sun and endanger satellites and power grids, Kerton said. 

"It's one of the more practical applications of astronomy," he said.

If you go

The corona will be a stunning hazy ring around a circle pitch darkness. The moon's shadow will race toward observers. Darkness will descend as brightness hearkens on the horizon. Insects and birds may be confused. But listing what happens doesn't suffice, said Kawaler, who last saw a total eclipse in 1998. 

"You can't describe the experience well enough for someone to truly get an idea of what it is like until they do it," he said.

For those who do head south, Kawaler has some logistical tips. Leave the day before and check the weather forecast. On Monday, plan to be mobile to adjust to sudden appearances of clouds and don't plan to rely on cellphone data networks, which will be overwhelmed.   

Beyond that, just go, Kawaler said.

"Just pick a place, any place, and go. Don't overthink this," he said.

Those who can't on Monday will have a second chance relatively soon. Another solar eclipse will pass nearby in 2024, including southern Missouri and Illinois.