The Significance of Insignificance

The eclipse of 2019 is over. My gear safely made it home from Chile and I’ve organized and packed it all away. I’ve washed my dirty cloths and added my Chilean pesos to the stash of foreign currency I’ve collected over the years. Most importantly, the files of my eclipse images are safely backed up and I’ve shared my initial processing attempts. I have a few more images to work on, and I’m sure I’ll continue to refine the versions I’ve already shared. I suspect that I’ll be working on these images on and off for quite some time. Finally, like any conscientious eclipse traveler, I’ve already made preliminary inquiries about the next one. I just can’t help thinking of my next view of totality. It is sort of like addiction recovery at this point.

So now what? Great question! As I reflect on this experience – my second foray into the umbral shadow of the moon – I remain fascinated by the question of what it means. And why does it mean so much to me? There are multiple answers to that question. Part of why I love eclipse adventures lies in the effort expended on these expeditions. And they are expeditions in the truest sense of the word (think a miniature version of what it takes to film an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth and you get what I mean by expedition). When I head out for an eclipse expedition, I have 100 pounds of gear. Minimum. I leave my home in Knoxville not knowing exactly where I’ll be for totality, or if even if I’ll see it. I know a lot less than I know at this stage, but I have my telescope, cameras, support equipment, and desire. That’s all you need!

But there is more to why the eclipse means so much to me and another part of the answer lies in the naturally inquisitive fabric that makes Steve. This is what I do: I get into stuff. I’m not completely sure how that aspect of my personality evolved, but it certainly has its roots in my days growing up in the Midwest. I suspect a strong connection to the curiosity that evolved during my exploration of the five acres that defined my domain for eight formative years as an adolescent. I also suspect a very strong connection to the SLR camera my uncle gave me in the early 70s. Finally, I vividly recall a partial solar eclipse that passed over our farm sometime back then. It took me a while, but I finally brought all these elements together into a passion for totality. Better late than never!

But more than any of that stuff, I think the eclipse means so much to me because it makes me realize the insignificance of all of us sapiens. Watching the moon slowly devour the sun during an eclipse reminds me how small we are in the grand scheme of the earth and the sun and the moon and the solar system and the galaxy and the universe. The magic of the rare and precise alignment of our moon with our star is but a miniscule serving of the celestial marvels that await the eye that seeks to see, the heart that is open to feel, and the mind that struggles to comprehend. And those sights, feelings, and understandings remind me of our insignificance. And that I believe is really significant. I’ve written about the significance of insignificance before and I have struggled to explain what I mean. I don’t mean to trivialize the human condition or the eons of evolution or centuries of progress that have allowed us to have epiphanies like this, but in the vast incomprehensible expanse of the universe, we are truly insignificant. Sure, the science underlying the eclipse is amazing. If the eclipse did anything, it reminded me that science works with great precision. The same science that predicts the location of the moon’s shadow to within half a second on a little patch of ground in northern Chile is the same science that explains many more phenomena in the world and the universe around us. Yet, on the scale of the 14-billion-year-old universe, this eclipse and our planet and our moon are nearly nothing. Truly insignificant! And, to my way of thinking, there is nothing more significant than knowing that!

What will the next adventure be? Certainly nothing as dramatic as totality. But that doesn’t matter: I’m sure it will remind me of my insignificance. And that is all the fuel I need to keep going!

Now, about this image. In addition to being a great place for totality on July 2, northern Chile was also a great place to view the night sky. So, almost immediately after totality, I got ready for night photography. I wanted to photograph parts of the Milky Way that are not easily seen in the northern hemisphere. This image is the result. It is 15 separate exposures (90 seconds, ISO 1600, f/4) blended together to reduce noise and provide nice sharp stars. Note that the brightest spot in this image is the planet Jupiter. The rest of the image is the core of the Milky Way galaxy (our home galaxy) as viewed on edge. The camera captures the details much better than our eyes. The bright areas are stars and the dark areas are dust clouds that block out the stars from our perspective on earth. Imagine that each dot in this image is a star, many of which could have planets, some of which could have life. The possibilities are quite significant, even from the perspective of this tiny, insignificant planet we call earth! I’ve wanted an image like this for a long time. I should be able to make a print of it 4 foot wide! I hope you like it!

PS, I know this has been a super-long long diatribe. Thanks for letting me vent and also for taking the time to get this far. Please share your thoughts with me!

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