An eclipse-chasing psychologist is coming to the US to launch her book and share personal stories of what it is like to experience a total eclipse. And her message is clear – don’t miss this.
Talk to any eclipse chaser, and they will tell you that the total eclipse is one of the world’s most fascinating and awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. Yet it is very hard to convey what it is like to those who have never seen one before. How does one describe the indescribable?
“During a total solar eclipse, you experience the impossible. It is an exhilarating, eerie and moving experience. Changes occur above you, around you, and within you”, explains Dr Kate Russo, an Australian eclipse-chasing psychologist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Dr Kate Russo is unique as an eclipse chaser as she has a background not in astronomy – but in psychology.
Since seeing her first total eclipse in 1999, she has traveled the world and has now seen 10 total eclipses. She researches and shares different aspects of the total eclipse – from how communities prepare, the motivations of eclipse chasers, to what it is like to experience the total eclipse for the first time.
She is a regular in the media before every eclipse, and has surveyed and interviewed hundreds of people before and after a total eclipse. No one understands more about the human experience of totality.
“Many people think that a total eclipse is only of relevance to geeks or bearded men with telescopes. They do not realise it is an emotional and other-worldly experience for everyone. People are quick to turn off at facts and figures, and stories of traffic Armageddon. Personal stories convey WHY people are so excited by the eclipse on August 21st. You will feel a primitive and eerie fear; it will suddenly go dark, you are likely to feel goosebumps and then cry out in surprise as you experience the beauty of the Universe before you. You will feel insignificant, and connected as you witness the impossible. You may even then become an eclipse chaser yourself. It is a profound experience for many people. But you MUST get into the path of totality.”
To help share personal stories, Russo has just launched her third book, Being in the Shadow: Stories of the First-Time Total Eclipse Experience. This non-fiction book features stories from six ordinary people, and is aimed at ‘eclipse virgins’ – those who have never experienced a total eclipse. This includes all Americans under the age of 40, and most above. This is not your typical ‘how to see an eclipse’ book.
Russo is known for being a passionate and inspiring speaker, making the eclipse experience come alive and leaving her audiences wanting more. She is soon traveling to Nebraska from 17-28 June to deliver public lectures and to promote her new book. Signed copies will be available at all of her events.
She will be viewing the total eclipse on August 21 from Teton Village, Wyoming, where she will again be leading a small group of international eclipse chasers with her tour group The Independent Traveller.
Being in the Shadow: Stories of the First-Time Eclipse Experience can be purchased on Amazon.com for $16.99 for paperback, and $8.99 for the ebook, which can also be downloaded directly from the author website.
Email for bulk orders and journalist review copies.
Recently, there was much to-do about the supermoon. In a way, it was great, as people started talking about the moon, and many made a point of going outside to view our closest celestial body. Images like the one above – taken with a telephoto lens capturing the moon illusion – are gorgeous and captivating, and were making the rounds on social media in the fortnight leading up to the supermoon. However, some people saw these posts, read the hype and then expected to see the moon this huge in the night sky. They were then disappointed when it looked just the same as every other full moon they had seen, perhaps a little brighter.
We seem to now be in a situation where the normal – a beautiful full Moon – is no longer enough. It now has to be some super, special, branded thing that people think they are missing out if they don’t see it. Some rare factoid is then used to give it even more meaning, and photos are used out of context – or faked – to create an unnecessary dramatic effect. This over hyping of astronomical events certainly grabs people’s attention, but there is a downside – expectations are raised, and then dashed, and people are left disappointed and disinterested in other astronomical activities. The reality is, there is so much to explore out there in the night sky, every night. We just have to stop and look up.
WHEN HYPE IS APPROPRIATE – BUT HOW MUCH?
But there is one astronomical event that astronomers and science outreach folk actually DO get very, very excited about, and is truly worthy of hype. The total solar eclipse. It is not the rarity that makes this event special – it really, truly is quite an unnatural and awe-inspiring event. Most of the people on social media currently talking about the total eclipse are those who have actually seen one, or are preparing for one. But it won’t be long before social media hype will take over, with unnecessary fake photos and incorrect facts, conspiracy theories and talk of the end of the world. We should brace ourselves.
If you are under 40, live in the US and have never traveled abroad to see a total eclipse, then you will never have experienced one. Yet it is surprising how many people think they have seen a total eclipse, because of misunderstanding media reports and social media posts.
That is why eclipse outreach is so important for those who are living in or near to the path of totality for August 2017. Most people get their astronomical news from social media, where fake stories and images abound. Even in traditional media reports, there are often factual errors and incorrect images. People need accurate information to understand what is to come, why it is a big deal, where they need to go to experience it, what to expect, and how to view it safely.
But if, like me, you share the full details about the total eclipse experience are you also feeding into the hype? Are we raising people’s expectations about this once-in-a-lifetime event, only for them to be disappointed?
Telling people what to expect CAN influence their expectations. But I also believe that you cannot ever spoil or over-hype a total solar eclipse. Totality is very visceral, fully immersive, and goes beyond language. There is no way, using words alone, that you can fully prepare someone for what they may feel and how it will impact upon them.
I have interviewed many scientists who say they thought they would not have any emotional reaction to their first total eclipse as it is a ‘science event’. Yet, despite their ‘superior’ knowledge, they were still as affected as others who knew very little – screaming out ‘oh my God‘, repeatedly, being stunned into silence, and perhaps even crying, as they see the impossible happen. Not everyone has emotional or transformative responses, but it is a rare person who is not moved and completely awestruck by the experience.
I have now spoken with hundreds of people before their first total eclipse, and then afterwards. I get comments such as “I was expecting it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be THAT good!”, or “If I hadn’t heard you talking about what it would be like, I would never have gone”. I have never had one person say that previous conversations with me has spoiled the experience for them.
When doing my eclipse research, the most common analogy most people relate the total eclipse experience to is the birth of their children. It is a meaningful, significant and life-changing experience. You may know what is to happen, have read about it, talked about it, seen videos, and even read personal accounts. But nothing can prepare you for what goes on physically and emotionally, and how you make sense of it.
THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF TOTALITY – WHEN ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS
There have been a few occasions that people have expressed their disappointment, or disinterest – always because they thought they had experienced totality when they hadn’t.
For example, when a total eclipse is clouded out, this can be disappointing as the main features are not seen and experienced. During a post-eclipse lecture back in 2012, one man expressed his disappointment at the over hype of the total eclipse experience, which for him was blocked by thick cloud. He could not accept that there was so much more to what he experienced, and he had no interest in seeing another. It made me understand the importance of ‘expectation management’ – something that I encourage organisers to consider if they are in regions along the path that are likely to be cloudy.
Again in 2012, I was interviewing a local about her eclipse experience, and she didn’t seem to have much of the usual emotion when recounting her day. When questioned further, it transpired that she kept her solar filters on for the whole of totality due to fear of harming her eyes. As a result, she saw nothing, and missed it all.
By far the most common reports of disappointment are made by those who THINK they have seen the total solar eclipse, but were clearly not within the path. One of my colleagues over a period of time kept questioning me on the authenticity of my experience, as he hadn’t felt any emotion at all during totality. After we consulted maps, it turns out that he was located about 400 miles away from the path of totality! He had seen media reporting about the total eclipse, and had assumed that the partial in his area was the main show. He had been adamant that he had seen a total eclipse. I think to this day he STILL thinks they are no big deal – his loss.
MY APPROACH TO ECLIPSE OUTREACH
Everyone has different drives and motivations. Some people are much more open to having new experiences – these are the people who will seek out information themselves about the eclipse. But for most others within the path of totality, they will need information that helps them to understand the unique experience that is to come, so they can plan to see it.
When I do my talks, I talk from my personal experience, but also from my research as well. Sharing the experiences of many gives me the ability to highlight how unique and meaningful the total eclipse experience is. There are similarities, of course, but the impact is deeply personal. I can describe differences in how people make sense of that feeling of connection – it could be a connection to nature, the universe, mother earth, or some religious figure. I never know what that will mean for each person – but I can give examples of how others have made sense of it. This information may help people to put language to the profound experience they have, but it doesn’t necessarily change the lived experience. Nor does it spoil it for them.
So, should you read and listen to other people’s accounts of totality before you see it for yourself? I think yes. Reading the accounts of others, listening to eclipse chasers – these things may influence how you think about it, and how you act. That is, it might make you more likely to get into the path of totality, and to convince others to go along with you. Without knowing that it really is quite a special event, you just may miss this chance, and regret it for a lifetime.
My next book features personal total eclipse experiences from a small number of ordinary people, and will be self published and available from my website in early 2017. I also plan to engage in a speaking tour of the path of totality in 2017. Formal announcements will occur soon. Get in touch if you would like your community to be included in my tour.
Four years ago today, on the morning of November 14 2012, the total solar eclipse was visible over Far North Queensland. As an eclipse chaser, for the first time in my life, all I had to do to get into the path of totality was to go home.
I spent the first 17 years of my life in this region – just outside of the path of totality. I may live far away, but North Queensland is my home, where my family still live, and it is in my blood. I return home as often as I can, often staying months at a time.
North Queensland is an amazing destination of world-heritage and very unique nature experiences – it truly is a tropical paradise. The perfect location to host the most incredible nature show there is – a total solar eclipse.
The locals were quite slow to warm up to the idea that the eclipse was going to be a big thing, and relevant to them. Us North Queenslanders’ are known for out laid-back outlook on life, and resilience and strong community connection in the face of adversity. We are shaped by our environment, and in this beautiful part of the world, nature can be harsh.
The year before the eclipse, the region was hit with a record-breaking category five cyclone – Yasi – that threatened Cairns but devastated smaller communities to the south. The impact of Cyclone Yasi was felt across the north, up and down the coast, as homes were devastated, people were displaced, farming and tourism infrastructure damaged, and livelihoods lost. The 2012 total eclipse could not have come at a better time. This was to be a positive nature event, one that could again unite the community in celebration, as well as draw in tens of thousands of tourists from around the world. It was time to showcase the region again. The eclipse was estimated to bring in 30,000 people, with an estimated $75 million for the local economy. Things were looking up.
The path of totality for the total eclipse in 2012 was 179km wide, from Bloomfield in the north, to Innisfail to the south. Within the path were the coastal towns including Cairns, Port Douglas and Palm Cove; and the inland remote communities of Mareeba, Mt Carbine, Palmer River and Lakeland. Those viewing from inland locations were promised clear skies, and coastal locations were forecast to have patchy cloud.
As the crowds began to pour into the region, the reality and scale of the event was obvious. In the final week, eclipse mania prevailed, and it was all anyone could talk about.
And then the day arrived. It was a double dawn like no other – tens of thousands of people woke up early to experience the total eclipse with their family, friends and loved ones.
Sunrise occurred at around 5.38am on this special day, with the Moon starting its show across the Sun less than ten minutes later. Nature arose, to only be confused again moments later. The main event – totality – occurred at round 6.40am. At that time, the ever-present noise of nature in this tropical paradise was suddenly silenced, replaced by the delighted screams of the locals and visitors seeing this natural wonder for the first time in this location in over one thousand years.
Some were luckier than others. Those of us viewing from inland were indeed greeted with clear skies. Those viewing from the coast, however, had a mixed experience; with cloud patches spoiling the view for people even just hundreds of meters apart. Clouds may have spoiled the view for some, but it certainly did not spoil the mood, the excitement and the buzz.
The buzz was fever-pitched for about a week afterwards. Everyone wanted to know – “where were you? What did you see?” People shared their stories, their photos, their memories, and their renewed ideas.
But soon, life started to slowly return to normal. Tourists began to leave, and the slow pace of life returned. Yet life seemed different.
The benefit to the region was significant. Visitor numbers were over double what was initially estimated. The economic boost to the region was estimated to be at least $130 million, with a longer-term benefit for the regional tourism sector. But for every person there on that day, standing in the shadow of the Moon – no value that can be placed on that experience. To witness a total solar eclipse in your own community is unique, intense, profound, and will be with you for a lifetime.
My book Totality: The total solar eclipse of 2012 in Far North Queensland tells the story of this eclipse, from the perspectives of many locals and visitors observing all across the north. And the images are gorgeous!! Order the ebook for just US$12.
It was the clearest total eclipse I have seen since Mongolia in 2008. That’s a long time to wait.
We saw totality from Wayu Village, high up in the mountains above Palu city, with sweeping views of the whole bay to the north, and down the valley to the centreline towards the south. You could not have picked a better vantage point.
The skies were clear, the Sun was high up, and the atmosphere electric. At first contact, a traditional music song was played, sounding like a single didgeridoo, which echoed down the valley. It was tremendous. There were further cultural performances – eclipse dances, chanting. We were high above the festivities though, it was difficult to fully see what was happening. but the music drifted upwards.
It was hot – why do I always forget to wear sunscreen?? The temperature at first contact was 31.5 Celsius, and over time it dropped slowly until after totality when it registered 24.5 degrees. The light went weird, birds were confused, and it was thrilling.
The shadow was not as pronounced as other eclipses, but the moment of second contact was incredible. The diamond ring hung there beautifully and seemed to last a lifetime. And then – totality. I screamed with delight as that familiar shadow fully covered all on that sacred mountain. We whooped, cheered, hugged, and stood in silence at the wonder before us. It felt like forever. Two planets were clearly visible, although the sky did not darken too much. I had a quick glance through binoculars and saw an incomplete but beautiful corona and prominences at 9 o’clock, both of which were clearly visible without binoculars. The shadow was much more pronounced from behind. The light on the horizon was beautiful. I was so grateful that the clouds stayed away.
And then third contact – always over too soon.
I was incredibly lucky to have this eclipse experience documented by MetroTV. I must say that spending days with the crew really added to the whole experience, and it was such a privilege to share that with them.
There is so much more to say. This eclipse will always be very special because of how we shared it – amongst the local population, our experience to be shared with the local community. What a wonderful, bonding and precious time that was.
Afterwards, I did a post-eclipse research workshop at the Sulawesi Eclipse Festival, where we shared the eclipse experience. It was a very special time.
The documentary featuring this eclipse experience, the research I have done, the pre- and post-eclipse workshops I did at the Eclipse Festival, and interviews – all will be aired across Indonesia to millions. What a wonderful way of sharing this amazing natural phenomena. The below clip is the promotional video for the full show.
I am often asked to describe the difference between a Total and an Annular Solar Eclipse.
The key difference is that the Moon is further away from the Earth, with the disc of the Moon no longer fully covering the Sun. Instead, a ‘ring of fire’ remains. Even though the light is greatly reduced, it is still not possible to safely view with the naked eye and solar filters must be used at all times, even during annularity. The most exciting and thrilling features of totality will not be seen or experienced.
An Annular eclipse is pretty special, but if you are used to seeing a Total Eclipse then an Annular feels like a great buildup and then the peak just doesn’t happen. This is the reason why Geordie jokes that he “won’t get out of bed for anything less than a Total’ these days.
What does it feel like to experience a partial eclipse, an Annular, and a Total? To me, it comes down to the degree of immersion and intensity. On a scale of 0 to 10 of immersion and intensity, a partial eclipse I would rate about a 4—it is interesting, it makes you think about the Universe in a three dimensional way, you become aware of the inevitability of the Universal clock. An Annular Eclipse I would rate about an 8—there are added experiences such as the gradual dimming of light, animal reactions, the approaching darkness, and seeing the Ring through solar filters. It is pretty awesome. On the same scale of immersion and intensity, I would rate a Total Solar Eclipse as 100. This is because once you experience the Total Eclipse you realize that it is on a completely different scale altogether, and just cannot be compared. It completely blows you away.
Many analogies have been used to describe the partial versus Annular versus Total Eclipse experience. Here is an example that many can relate to, using a musical concert:
You have just received word that your favorite band in the world will be performing – and they are coming to your town! You queue up to purchase your tickets in advance, feeling very excited when you have them in your hand. Finally the day comes and you make your way to the venue. You find a spot that is close to the front, and it just so happens to give you a great line of sight of everything. The support band plays for an hour and you get caught up in the excitement, waving your arms in the air and dancing away as one with the crowd. The support band ends their set, and the crowd starts cheering excitedly, building up a crescendo of noise and screams until the moment arrives – your band comes on stage! You see them! You are beside yourself with excitement. For the next two hours, the band plays all of your favorite songs, and you feel like you are in your own little world, just you and the band, as you are part of this magical moment. You go home that evening feeling so incredibly lucky, and content with your life.
Here’s the comparison – seeing a partial eclipse is like getting your tickets to the concert. An Annular Eclipse would be like going home just when the support band ends their set—right when things just start to get exciting. The Total eclipse is experiencing the whole thing.
At my Brisbane book launch, I was speaking with Terry, an eclipse chaser who did a lot of media during the last total eclipse in November 2012. Terry recounted how every local person he interviewed immediately after the eclipse to share their experience could only say a few words – “It was awesome”. “It was amazing”. People repeatedly struggled to find words. I was not surprised to hear this – this is how I felt after my first eclipse experience, and it really did take quite a while to be able to put language to the experience. Many eclipse chasers have stories of being near others who experience it for their first time, and seeing their reactions – being totally overwhelmed and unable to speak, or just repeatedly saying ‘wow’.
Even when we then are able to connect again with our brains after the experience, our language seems unable to express the intensity of what we have felt. The experience of totality requires us to expand our mental structures in order to understand – not unlike the experience of childbirth or other significant life-changing experiences. This is why we cannot explain it to those who have not experienced it – it is ineffable.
The problem is, when intense things happen to us, we want to share our experiences. We want to talk to others – to connect with others. When we try to explain to others who weren’t there, we sound a little crazy and fanatical, and it becomes frustrating. We just cannot convey the power of the event, how it impacted upon us personally, and the ‘addictive’ nature of the experience.
I have now spent hundreds of hours interviewing people about their eclipse experiences – eclipse chasers and people who have just seen their first total eclipse. These interviews usually are very fluent until we get to the point where totality occurs, and people stumble, slow down, pepper their words with ‘you know’, ‘it was like….’, ‘um, you know’, ‘…just awesome’. People are reassured that I understand what they are trying to convey as I have been there, and this allows them to continue on with their struggle of finding the words, and with prompting and continued discussion we usually get to a point where the full experience is shared. With all of these interviews, I have now noticed a few patterns when people try to explain the inexplicable:
Adding extra prefixes and suffixes – The ‘specialness’ of the experience and the ‘unfathomability’ of the darkness of the Moon that looks out at you like an eye just cannot be described, along with other features. For example, the ‘unduplicability’ of the colors on the horizon. The ‘unstoppability’ as the Moons’ shadow races towards you, and the ‘inevitableness’ of the eclipse happening and there is nothing that we can do about it. We just feel the need to add extra dimensions to our words to convey how amazing it is.
Overuse of similes – When people struggle with finding the words, they then try to find similar experiences to compare to, so that the things can be communicated through experience rather than through words. ‘It was like CGI graphics’; “light was like a 50’s film’; the eclipsed Sun was ‘like a hole in the sky’, or ‘like the eye of god’, and the remainder of the partial eclipse grinned down ‘like a Cheshire cat’. Totality felt ‘like anything could happen’, and you are shocked ‘as if a dead relative just walked into the room’. The similes usually relate to feeling that something unnatural had happened, something so amazing that it had to be computer generated.
Attempts to use other senses – People sometimes start to use other ways of communicating, or using other senses in an attempt to convey their words. Hand gestures increase without words coming out. Some use an imagined sound to describe the experience – ‘like it all just popped into place’, the darkness ‘came roaring towards us’. It was like ‘it made a noise’ and was alive.
It’s fantastic that as adults we can experience such wonder in the world that makes us speechless. The Japanese refer to this as Yugen – where we experience the full wonder of the Universe on a phenomenological level. It is these experiences that make us feel the most alive.
A recent article on awe published in Psychological Science by three American business school researchers has been making the rounds ofonline magazines and blogs this weekend.
In this experimental study, the researchers explored the impact of awe by either eliciting memories of experiences of awe, or by creating awe using images. They found that those who experienced awe subsequently reported having more time available to help others, increased patience, a less materialistic outlook, and were more willing to help others.
“The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to bring us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”
Eclipse chasers are well aware that awe has this impact upon our perception of time, our sense of self, and our experience of the world. These themes were identified in my book following the analysis of phenomenological interviews. These findings confirm real-life research with eclipse chasers is consistent with experimental studies.
Melanie Rudd, Jennifer Aaker and Kathleen Vohs. Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science, 2012