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Photo: John McConnico/AP Photo

The celestial wonder might just steal your heart

1. It’s kind of a big deal.

It’s been 38 years since a total solar eclipse grazed the continental U.S. and 99 years since one traveled coast to coast across the country. Which means if you call the lower 48 home, the total solar eclipse that will cross across the U.S. from Newport, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina, on August 21 is kind of a big deal.

And total solar eclipses themselves are pretty badass. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, and it’s also 400 times farther away. “When the ratio of size is equal to the ratio of distance, then objects look the same size in the sky,” says Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and self-proclaimed eclipse addict. So when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, it totally obscures that big old star, turning daylight to dusk, causing the temperature to drop suddenly and blocking out all but the sun’s outer atmosphere or corona, which appears like a halo around the moon. It’s one hell of a view.

2. And you can see it.

If you live along the path of totality—and lots of people do—it’s as easy as walking outside and looking up (provided the weather cooperates). The path includes cities like Salem, Oregon; Kansas City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charleston, South Carolina, and it’s 70 miles wide, so if you’re close by, it’s worth making the drive.

The diamond ring effect occurs in the seconds just before and after totality. Saurabh Das/AP Photo

3. Partial eclipses have nothing on totality.

Elsewhere in the U.S. will experience a partial solar eclipse, but Filippenko says it doesn’t compare to the real thing. He’s witnessed 15 total solar eclipses, and doesn’t bother to count the partials. “The partial ones are such a pale comparison to a total, that it’s kind of like once you’ve seen a total one, who cares? To those who say, ‘Well, I saw a 95 percent eclipsed sun, that’s only 5 percent away from a totally eclipsed sun.’ No. It’s like the difference between being pregnant and not pregnant. You can’t be 95 percent of the way there.”

4. Total solar eclipses are just emotional, man.

Filippenko saw his first on February 26, 1979 in Oregon. “It was just an amazingly moving experience. It’s very difficult to describe to people who have not seen one.” That first eclipse ranks among the astronomer’s most memorable, “but [today] it’s still an amazing thrill. I gaze upward just in awe of the beauty and magnificence of the event and the fact that this lineup occurs. … Most people who do witness one for themselves, especially one where the odds are low because there’s all these clouds and stuff, say it’s a life changing event.

5. They’re also unique to Earth.

Other planets in our solar system have moons, but none of them get the celestial fireworks of a total solar eclipse. Jupiter’s moons cause eclipses, but they’re so big, they block out the sun entirely when they cross paths. No glowing corona visible.

6. Animals get weird.

When that fiery ball in the sky goes M.I.A., animals often behave bizarrely. “Roosters start crowing because they think it’s twilight. Nocturnal things start getting roused up, whereas animals that tend to start quieting down and build a bed at sunset start basically getting ready to go to sleep. They’re all kind of confused because it doesn’t match up with their circadian rhythms,” Filippenko says.

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7. Back in the day, people thought total solar eclipses were terrifying.

Just imagine it: You’re tending your fields/churning butter/defending the citadel, when the sun suddenly vanishes—blacked out, as if some giant hand had yanked it from the sky.

“Typical explanations were that the gods were upset with them and wanted some sort of a sign that they’ve changed their ways. Or maybe there were dragons in the sky that were eating the sun,” says Filippenko. “Various methods were used: yelling, screaming, beating pots and pans, sacrificing animals, sacrificing virgins. I like to joke that these techniques worked every time. The sun would come back.”

8. Even now, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions.

Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find abundant doomsday scenarios about this summer’s solar eclipse. Sorry, conspiracy theorists and apocalypse anticipators, the world’s not ending. In 1991, a total solar eclipse passed over Mexico City, “to my knowledge the largest population center ever to experience a total solar eclipse,” Filippenko says. “Many, if not most, [people] stayed indoors and watched it on their TVs because they were told it was dangerous.”

Eyes up. Celestial wonders are coming August 21. Joel Ryan/AP Photo

9. You do need to take some precautions.

If you want to stare at the sun, Ray-Bans aren’t going to cut it. To watch the partial phases of the eclipse (before and after the moon and sun are perfectly aligned), you’ll need some basic gear to block the powerful rays emanating from that giant ball of burning gas. Look for the words “CE Certified” and products that block 99.999 percent of optical light and 100 percent of UV and infrared light, or make your own pinhole camera. Once totality begins you’re free to drop the filter and gape at the wonders of our universe. Just remember to avert your eyes or grab those glasses as soon as the sun starts emerging again.

10. If you don’t go see it, it won’t come to you.  

This August’s eclipse will be Filippenko’s 15th, and he’s not alone in his obsession. Eclipse addicts are a thing, and they go to great lengths to position themselves in the path of totality. On average, any given spot on the planet will experience a total solar eclipse only once every 380 years, so think about blowing off school or work to go absorb the astronomical phenomena. “It’s really quite rare,” Filippenko explains. “Unless you’re lucky, one will not visit you. You have to go visit it.”