Monday, August 14, 2017

The Carbondale Enigma

I just discovered that a rare celestial confluence of events (of sorts) is about to happen at a spot on the earth not too far from me. I think I'll dub this event The Carbondale Enigma. (Shout out to my many reader in Carbondale, Illinois)

To be technically correct, I guess I should call it The Cedar Lake Enigma, but I'm not sure anyone has heard of Cedar Lake. In fact, I had never heard of it until tonight as I was clicking around on Google Earth. Honestly, I'm not even sure this discovery qualifies as an enigma, but if not, the word has an awfully high bar.

Also I am not sure I discovered it, but I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else. This was research I did on my own.

I'll start with an interesting fact: If you're sitting at any given spot on the globe - for instance, your house - and a total solar eclipse happens, the average wait time for the next one is around 400 years. That's a brief tick of the Great Celestial Clock by which things like the sun and moon operate, but it's a fairly long time in human terms. Roughly five lifetimes, in fact.

You'd be born, complete school, get a job, raise 2.1 kids, survive 1.5 divorces, burn through 12 vehicles, retire at 64.7 years old, take up pottery and bingo to show the world you've completely given up, and die at around age 80... five times before the next total solar eclipse happened at your house.

That kind of data intrigues me, but it also motivates me to find the exception. That's how I noticed The Carbondale (OK, Cedar Lake) Enigma.

In this seemingly well-ordered cosmos, even the slightest bit of scrutiny will expose imperfections. For instance, the moon revolves around the earth in an irregular ellipse, not a perfect circle. Its orbit deviates 5 degrees from the solar plane. Earth's axis has something called the Chandler Wobble. The planet's rotation is gradually slowing. The moon is slipping several centimeters further from Earth every year. These imperfections and deviations from 'the norm' can cause odd irregularities through the amplification of an epoch scale. For instance (and no, I don't know this for a fact), there are probably places on Earth that have never experienced a perfect total eclipse, and others that get way more than their share.

I discovered a place like the latter a few miles southwest of Carbondale, Illinois. It's an unassuming spot along the bank of a small inlet on Cedar Lake, and can be reached via short hike from S. Poplar Camp Road. That spot, at 37°38'30"N 89°16'16"W, is in the exact center of the path of the August 21, 2017 North American solar eclipse. Not such a big deal - it's a bi-coastal eclipse with countless similar spots along its path. But as I was scouring maps of future eclipses, I noticed that same lakeside spot is also in the exact center of the path of another eclipse set to occur April 8, 2024, only seven years later.

That may seem like nothing to you, but it's the equivalent of an acid trip for geeks like me. Seven years, not four hundred. Statistically significant. Sure, it's just a coincidence, an artifact of a non-symmetrical universe. However, I'm the kind of guy who appreciates such things. Maybe you are, too.

I'm taking my family to Jefferson City, Missouri, also in the center of the moon's shadow, where we will experience this incredible event together. Most humans never witness a total solar eclipse in person, so I'm excited to share this with my wife and kids. I've heard it's a soul-shifting experience. For a few brief moments, the winds calm, the temperature drops, and shadows sharpen. Then, suddenly, the sky goes dark and the stars come out. Crickets start singing. In every direction, low along the horizon, a 'sunset' appears. Above, as the moon blocks a raging inferno, the whispy, feathery ring of our local star's corona dances silently.

Everything feels calm and peaceful.

Moments later, the moon moves on and the sun comes back. The world returns to normal, as if nothing ever happened. Except, as I understand, those who witness it are changed somehow.

Weather permitting, August 21, 2017 will be that kind of event. Still, part of me wants to be at that spot near Carbondale, Illinois on the bank of Cedar Lake, to take it all in from that unique place. Then, to return in seven years and watch it all happen again. To stack some stones on that spot near the water as the sun disappears - a sort of makeshift monument to the rarity of the experience and the special perspective - in hopes that sometime in the distant future, say in 400 years, someone will find my monument and understand.