I never visited the little observatory that my Collinsville High School debating team partner, Tim Brown, and his father set up in some woods to gaze at the cosmos.
Frankly, I thought that the sky, which had fascinated Tim since childhood, was rather boring. When you’ve seen one star, I figured, you’ve seen them all.
His father, Jim Brown, was an English professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who would later serve as chancellor of the whole Southern Illinois University system. But in those woods in the late 1960s, Jim was a devoted dad encouraging a motivated son.
Although I lacked that particular motivation, even my eyes will be cast upward in about 9½ weeks, when the moon passes in front of the sun hereabouts and plunges daylight briefly into night. A total solar eclipse will occur shortly after noon Aug. 21.
How big a deal is this? I called Tim to ask.
His interest in the heavens did not end at that homemade observatory. Tim Brown went on to be a world-class astronomer and, as luck would have it, one of the foremost experts on the sun. (These days, he works mostly on creating instruments for exploration, and in some other celestial pursuits.)
His simple advice: “You need to see this.”
On Aug. 21, millions of people across the United States will have the opportunity to view a total solar eclipse, an astronomical event that has not happened in St. Louis since 1442.
Tim has seen two, both back in the 1970s, and recalls them as “like a religious experience.” He added, “Even a near-eclipse of 95 percent would not be the same.”
Many of us probably have seen a total eclipse of the moon, which occurs when the Earth gets in the way of the sunlight. Explained Tim: “A lunar eclipse is cold pancakes with no syrup compared to this.”
Observers will experience a midday darkness comparable to a moonlit evening, Tim explained. It will be too dark to read. The stars will appear. A dramatic corona will circle the blacked-out sun. There will be a twilight-like appearance at the horizon all the way around. The temperature might fall 5 degrees.
It makes no sound, of course, but Tim recalled, “I thought I should hear it. It was so spectacular that it felt like it should involve more of my senses.”
For the record, the event has little significance to researchers, since space-based equipment provides a better view of the sun. He said, “The most important thing about the eclipse is that it captures people’s interest in the physical world.”
It is causing excitement around here, given that the last one here was in 1442, before Christopher Columbus was born.
There can be up to seven solar eclipses a year somewhere on Earth, but the paths are so narrow — and so much of the planet is oceans or otherwise remote — that relatively few people get to see one.
Some are partial, with the moon not large enough in the sky to cover the whole sun. This will be the grand kind, amazing for its accessibility as it tracks southeast from Oregon to South Carolina.
The center line of the 70-mile-wide path will cross Missouri just above Kansas City and exit just below St. Louis. It will enter Illinois over Chester and pass over Vienna before exiting north of Metropolis.
Public safety officials in Missouri and Illinois are bracing for throngs of visitors who may clog highways and overburden services.
But what I write here is in no way a warning. I am specifically not advising you to plan carefully or make sure you can provide for your own needs. Others may say those things, but I shall not.
My reluctance dates to 1999, when Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis — something almost as rare as a solar eclipse. I wrote then that nervous police were worried — based on a papal visit to Denver — that gridlocked motorists might be deprived of food and medical care. The St. Louis turnout ended up lighter than expected.
My columnist colleague Bill McClellan whimsically suggested in print that my story had scared people away. I whimsically responded in print that obviously I had saved lives.
So this time, I say y’all come to the eclipse. There will be plenty of room. Wide open highways. Abundant food. Plentiful restrooms. A hospital every 100 yards.
But I will provide this downer: Historically, the St. Louis area is overcast on about 20 percent of its Aug. 21sts, and has precipitation at some point on 29 percent of them. I hereby disavow responsibility if the show is spoiled by clouds or rain.
In the worst case, if you are willing to settle for cool, dry pancakes, there will be a total lunar eclipse to see here Jan. 31. Or you could wait for the next total solar eclipse. It’s expected back in the St. Louis area in 2505.