April 18, 2024

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How an eclipse could help unite a fractured America

These days, I feel like a traveling preacher — or a rabbi, perhaps.

A recent Wednesday found me in Cleveland, preaching from a converted synagogue theater — now a concert hall — to more than 400 enthusiastic people. Two days later, she carried the word to a packed hall in New York City. I recently preached online in Mesquite, Texas. Evansville, Indiana; And Cape Elizabeth in Maine. My message: Get ready for the great and wonderful day ahead.

On April 8, the universe will grace America with its most spectacular natural spectacle: a total solar eclipse. Its length is about 115 miles wide In the region from Texas to Maine (called the path of totality), the bright sun will disappear for up to 4 1/2 minutes, plunging the Earth into an eerie twilight. Meanwhile, on that day, everywhere in the contiguous United States will experience a partial solar eclipse, an interesting (if much less spectacular) event.

A total eclipse can change a life. I had my first experience in 1998 in Aruba. At the moment when the moon completely covered the sun and the blue sky fell, the solar corona – the sun's outer atmosphere, exploded, sparkling like a wreath of tinsel into outer space. Beside him, the planets were sailing in their orbits. The sight was a revelation, because deep down I understood that I was just a dot on a piece of rock revolving around the sun. I now chase eclipses all over the world.

A total eclipse can also change the course of history. They ended and strengthened the armed conflict. The 19th-century eclipse helped inspire America's rise as a scientific power, as I discovered when I was writing a book about the event. I pray that this year's eclipse may move our fractured nation in a united, hopeful direction.

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Do you think you like solar eclipses? Think again. This guy has seen more than 20 people. (Video: Alice Lee/The Washington Post)

You may remember that seven years ago, another total eclipse occurred in our country. On that occasion – August 21, 2017 – the path of totality was wrapped like a scarf from Oregon to South Carolina., It fell in America, which seemed to be on the verge of civil war.

It was the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, when protests and anger rocked the country. Partisan and cultural divisions deepened: red versus blue, urban versus rural. One week before the eclipse, darkness descended on Charlottesville, where a white supremacist rally met counter-protesters in a deadly clash that summed up the country's disintegration. However, on the day of the celestial event, America merged. His focus turned outward—toward the sky—for a shared cosmic moment.

And at Southern Illinois University, when the moon shadow arrived, 14,000 voices rose from the school's Greyhound stadium. “It shows us how strong we are when we all come together, even with everything that's going on,” a man in the crowd told NBC News.

In Oakland, New Jersey — where townspeople gathered in the library to watch the partial eclipse but found there weren't enough sunglasses for everyone to safely observe — those who wore glasses shared with those who didn't. One woman told the local newspaper: “Given the experiences we've had across the country recently, it's good to see everyone coming together and making this happen.”

At a massive gathering called SolarFest in Oregon's high desert, the diverse thousands who came from all over the world proved so polite and cooperative that they left almost no litter when they evacuated the fairgrounds. “It's so clean,” one organizer said in amazement.

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The scene was repeated across the country, in parks and city streets, on mountaintops and beaches. Individuals became communities. Strangers are no longer strangers. The stiff people cried, hugged, and fell into reverential silence.

In this age of polarized politics, insular entertainment, and individualistic news, the eclipse offered a precious shared experience — one that uplifted and united rather than degraded and divided. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan estimated that more than 150 million American adults watched the 2017 eclipse live, while another 60 million watched it on television or the Internet. “This is a level of exposure that dwarfs the viewership of the Super Bowl and ranks among the most watched events in American history,” the study concluded.

Other scientists at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed millions of messages sent on Twitter around the time of the 2017 eclipse, and found that those posted from within the path of totality and on the day of the eclipse “showed greater awe and less self-expression.” Focused language, more socially positive, affiliative, humble and collectivistic. The team confirmed that these results revealed the psychological impact of the 2017 solar eclipse. “Just as the moon lined up with the sun in the sky, people on Earth lined up with each other in awe of this amazing celestial event.”

That's why I preach now.

The total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 promises to exercise this unifying force even more powerfully. Nearly three times as many Americans – more than 30 million – live within the path of totality this year, and more than half the US population lives within a day's drive. I encourage as many people as possible to take this journey, and to put themselves in the awe zone.

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Our country has begun another year of bitter political campaigning, and what seems to be selling it is anger and division. However, I can tell that there is a longing for something more, something different.

At the end of my last talk in Cleveland, an audience member sent me a question on stage. “It seems like the eclipse brings a lot of people together,” he began. Why can't we continue in these amazing ways… after the eclipse? How can we benefit from it?

At that time I wished I had the wisdom of a rabbi, because I didn't know the answer. But perhaps asking the question is a start. A four-minute spectacle won't mend the fabric of our country torn apart by years of mutual mistrust, but if enough of us stand in the way of the moon's shadow on April 8, the eclipse might remind us of the unity we long to regain. This alone may fix some stitches.

David Barron, a former science correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) and current chief of astrobiology at the Library of Congress, is the author of American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Moon's Shadow and Win World Glory. He has witnessed eight total solar eclipses on five continents.