15 Not-So-Dumb Eclipse Questions and Myths

The Aug. 21 'Great American Eclipse' marks the start of a golden age of total solar eclipses over the U.S. (Photo: Bryce Bradford/flickr)

Aug. 21 marks the start of a golden age of eclipse viewing for the United States. Over the course of the next few decades, no less than 10 total solar eclipses will pass over American borders. To prepare for the introductory celestial wonder, we've gathered a collection of eclipse questions both scientific and superstitious to offer some background and dispel some myths.

Haven't I seen a total solar eclipse before?

Annular solar eclipse, Hinode satellite, January 6, 2011.
An image of an annular solar eclipse as captured by the Hinode satellite on Jan. 6, 2011. (Photo: NASA/flickr)

The Aug. 21 eclipse is the first total solar eclipse over the contiguous U.S. since Feb. 22, 1979. On that date, spectators in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota were the only ones to witness totality. As you might expect from the time of year, conditions were also dreary, so many people missed out on the event due to rain.

The U.S. has not experienced a total solar eclipse from coast to coast since June 8, 1918. It's worth noting, however, that there have been several "annular" eclipses in the decades since then, including in May 1984 and May 1994. Unlike a total solar eclipse, an annular eclipse occurs when the lunar disc does not completely block the sun, creating a momentary phenomenon called "the ring of fire."

Those who claim to have seen a total solar eclipse over the contiguous U.S. within the last several decades likely witnessed an annular eclipse.

Will the August eclipse signal the beginning of the apocalypse?

As you might expect with anything that briefly plunges the world into darkness, total solar eclipses throughout history have been interpreted by some as portends of doom. The Vikings believed two heavenly wolves were chasing the sun and moon. The ancient Maya believed snakes were responsible. In 2017, the leading superstition is that the Aug. 21 eclipse will signal the impending collision of Earth with planet Nibiru (a.k.a. Planet X).

What is planet Nibiru? According to author and Christian numerologist David Meade, who has incorrectly predicted the end of the world several times over the last 15 years, Nibiru is a large planetary object that will destroy the Earth on Sept. 23. The Aug. 21 eclipse is apparently part of a prophecy from the Old Testament signaling this apocalyptic event.

Like all other eclipse-related apocalyptic scenarios, this one is nothing but a hoax built on pseudoscience. Go ahead and make plans for October.

Why are total solar eclipses so rare?

A NASA map showing the paths of total solar eclipses (blue) and annular eclipses (red) from 2000-2020.
A NASA map showing the paths of total solar eclipses (blue) and annular eclipses (red) from 2000-2020. (Photo: NASA)

Since 1867, there have only been 15 total solar eclipses visible from the contiguous United States. While rare to us, this celestial alignment actually occurs roughly every 18 months somewhere on Earth. The only problem is, they're generally over water and far from population centers.

Thankfully, the U.S. is entering a golden age of eclipse watching, with no less than six prime total eclipses occurring in the 21st century. And just remember, it could always be worse: In 500 years, the United Kingdom has only witnessed eight total solar eclipses. The next one isn't slated to take place until Sept. 23, 2090.

Will staring at the sun during totality cause radiation blindness?

Only during totality can you safely remove your eclipse glasses without fear of damaging your retinas.
Only during totality can you safely remove your eclipse glasses without fear of damaging your retinas. (Photo: AJ Mangoba/flickr)

If you're lucky enough to be in the narrow path of totality on Aug. 21, you'll be able to safely remove your eclipse glasses for a few minutes to witness the sun blocked completely by the moon. During this time, the corona of the sun emits only electromagnetic radiation, sometimes with a greenish hue. According to NASA, viewing this spectacle with the naked eye is completely safe during the short window of totality.

"Being a million times fainter than the light from the sun itself, there is nothing in the coronal light that could cross 150 million kilometers of space, penetrate our dense atmosphere, and cause blindness," they state.

As soon as totality concludes, however, you'll want to throw your specialized eyeglasses back to prevent damaging your retinas.

Why does the moon's shadow travel faster across Oregon than Kentucky?

György Soponyai took a photo every five minutes during a total solar eclipse over Norway in 2015.
György Soponyai took a photo every five minutes during a total solar eclipse over Norway in 2015. (Photo: György Soponyai/flickr)

When the moon's shadow makes landfall on western Oregon on the 21st, it will be traveling at more than 2,400 mph. As it progresses across the U.S., it begins to slow down, finally bottoming out about 1,448 mph above Kentucky. It then picks up speed again as it approaches South Carolina and leaves U.S. soil at around 1,500 mph.

The reason for these speed deviations all boils down to the geometry of the Earth and moon. Ernie Wright, a NASA data visualizer, told Vox that the shadow has the greatest speed at the beginning of the eclipse because it will be striking the Earth at a slant, covering more ground. As it progresses across the U.S. the shadow will become more "straight-on" and slow down. When it concludes over the Atlantic, it will once again pick up speed as it splays across the curvature of the Earth.

Will attempting to conceive during the eclipse result in the creation of a baby with super powers?

No — but that doesn't mean one Craigslist poster isn't interested in trying.

Will watching the eclipse hurt my unborn child?

No. There is no harmful radiation emitted during a total solar eclipse that can hurt a mother or her unborn baby. There's an old superstition going around that wearing red will supposedly protect expectant mothers from the eclipse's rays, but honestly, just make sure you're wearing your safety glasses.

Are there any good superstitions associated with eclipses?

Yes, if you like flowers. While most superstitions surrounding eclipses are steeped in doom and gloom, Italian gardeners have a different take: If you plant flowers during an eclipse, they will bloom with much brighter blossoms than usual. (This is one irrational trick it can't hurt to try.)

If I'm not in the path of totality; will my sky still dim as the moon crosses the sun?

While totality will offer the best way to experience the eclipse, those outside its narrow band will still observe some of its effects.
While totality will offer the best way to experience the eclipse, those outside its narrow band will still observe some of its effects. (Photo: Kevin Hale [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

The vast majority of Americans on the 21st will witness about 70 percent of the sun blocked by the moon. While this will not be enough to darken the sky and allow the stars to shine through, the two-hour duration of partial totality will still wash out colors and dim the daylight. In places like Jacksonville and Salt Lake City, where totality is expected to be 90 percent or greater, the air will cool and daylight will dim substantially.

Nevertheless, if you're not under totality, don't even think about looking at the eclipse with anything but special glasses.

“Even when 99 percent of the sun is blocked out by the moon, the amount of light is still 10,000 times stronger than a full moon," Alex Young, associate director for science in the heliophysics division of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center," told The Atlantic. "So even when there’s 1 percent of the sun still visible, it’s still too bright."

Why can't I see the moon's surface during a total solar eclipse?

For those within the path of totality, the blue sky of day will fall away to reveal the stars, planets, and the sun's eerie corona. So why can't we see the surface of the moon at the same time?

According to Ethan Siegel, who writes about astrophysics and space for Forbes, the reason has to do with the very object the moon is upstaging.

"Yes, there is Earthshine illuminating the face of the Moon," he writes. "And yes, the new Moon's face is 150% brighter than even the brightest star in the sky. But the corona is 10,000 times brighter than the new Moon, and is located only a quarter-of-a-degree from even the new Moon's center. Your eyes may be sensitive enough to see something as bright as the new Moon, but not if something 10,000 times brighter is that close to it."

Should I buy special eclipse glasses for my pet?

dog wearing eclipse protection glasses
A dog's eyes could be harmed by a solar eclipse, but they're less likely to look up than we are. (Photo: Waifer X/Flickr)

No. Unlike human, animals aren't interested in actively seeking out the sun during an eclipse to see what's going on.

"It’s no different than any other day — on a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun, and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not gonna do it either,” the University of Missouri’s Angela Speck said at a NASA news conference. "It’s not a concern, letting them outside. ... All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. ... I’m not going to worry about my cat."

That said, for those animals under totality, you might observe some confusion as the sky suddenly darkens. To alleviate any anxiety, you may want to consider leaving your furry friend inside during the event.

Is it true that total solar eclipses will cease 600 million years from now?

In 600 million years, total solar eclipses will give way to annular eclipses due to the moon's inability to fully cover the surface of the sun.
In 600 million years, total solar eclipses will give way to annular eclipses like this one due to the moon's inability to fully cover the surface of the sun. (Photo: Kevin Baird/flickr)

Believe it or not, this one is completely true. Because the moon is slowly moving away by about 1 to 1/2 inches every year, over time it will become too small to completely block the surface of the sun. Annular eclipses with their spectacular rings of fire will become the norm.

The reason the sun and moon fit so perfectly together in this place in time is because of their relative distance to each other in relation to Earth. The sun may be 400 times wider than the moon, but the moon is 400 times closer. In another 600 million years, this will no longer be the case. Of course, if Elon Musk and Co. haven't managed to get us off this rock sooner, we'll have a lot bigger issues to worry about.

Will food become poisoned during the eclipse?

This myth is linked once again to the idea that the sun outputs some kind of vengeful radiation for the moon spoiling its view of the Earth. As a result, any food sitting out during your awesome eclipse party will become poisonous and sicken your guests. There is absolutely no science to back up these claims. More than likely, if food poisoning does strike, it's because someone left the potato salad out in the sun for too long.

Is there an eclipse playlist I can rock out to?

It's 2017! You bet your umbra there is! Whether you choose these playlists from The New York Times, Mashable or The Boston Globe, one thing is for sure: Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is about to see a spike in listens.

When is the next total solar eclipse?

If life or the weather conspires to rob you of witnessing this year's total solar eclipse, you fortunately will not have to wait long until the next one. On Oct. 14, 2023, an annular eclipse will wow viewers from northern California to Florida. On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will cross the U.S. from Texas to Maine, with totality at greatest eclipse lasting an astounding 4 minutes and 28 seconds.

Future dates of totality over the U.S. during the first half of the 21st century include March 30, 2033, Aug. 23, 2044, Aug. 12, 2045 and March 30, 2052.