Total Solar Eclipse 2017: Bill Nye on How, When, Where and Why to Watch

7-19-17 Bill Nye 2
Bill Nye thinks everyone should get out and see the total solar eclipse that will pass across the United States on August 21. "You can drive a few hours, wait for the eclipse, get your mind blown and then drive home," he says. The Planetary Society

A total solar eclipse is coming to a sky near you for just one performance this August, and Bill Nye wants everyone to get out and see it. Nye, the CEO of the Planetary Society, is a mechanical engineer who became a popular television host and educator as “the Science Guy” in the 1990s. His new series, Bill Nye Saves the World, had its premiere on Netflix in April and was nominated last week for Emmys in writing and production design. Newsweek spoke to Nye about his plans and tips for the momentous celestial event he believes will blow viewers’ minds and change them forever. Edited excerpts follow.

It’s been more than two years since I last had a chance to speak with you. This time I want to talk specifically about the upcoming eclipse in August.
What?! I haven’t heard a thing about it!

Have you seen a total solar eclipse before?
The best one I saw was in South Africa in 2002. There was a journalism conference, and they arranged it to be at the same time. It’s cool. It’s spectacular. It goes dark. You can see stars in the middle of the day. I know everybody talks about it, but it really is very much out of your everyday experience. It’s weird and very exciting.

What was that experience in South Africa like?
I was in Kruger National Park on the east coast of South Africa. And we were in a jungle and the sky went dark, and you could hear what I would interpret as the nocturnal animals going about their business all of a sudden. Then the birds left the watering hole and went to their nighttime roosts. It all happens instantly. It’s really odd and exciting. I can see why ancient peoples who didn’t know what was going on were troubled by the event. It’s really something.

Can you tell me a little bit about your own plans for August?
I’ll be in Beatrice, Nebraska, at the Homestead National Monument representing the Planetary Society, the world’s largest nongovernmental space interest group advancing space science and exploration so that citizens everywhere will be empowered to know the cosmos and our place within it! The elevator door closes…

What’s planned for that? |
We’re going to have star parties, we have telescopes to look at the sky—we have a lot of volunteers from the Planetary Society who are experts on the night sky. And we’ll be looking at the sun with our special glasses. I strongly recommend you get some eclipse glasses.

What are eclipse glasses?
These are glasses that enable you to look right at the sun. And you know the stereotype of the pilot—pilot!—pirate with the eye patch? Many astronomers believe that that’s from people navigating on the high seas. You’re trying to find the position of the sun in sky, and it’s so important to you when you’re sailing a ship at sea that you just keep staring at the sun, waiting for that moment when the sun culminates—gets highest in the sky—and so it led to people going blind or getting very sensitive in one eye. So they wore an eye patch all day.

But anyway, with these glasses you don’t have to go that route. You’ll be OK. There’s some days when you can see sunspots with these, especially kids who have very good eyes. So the glasses are useful year-round.

The thing is, this eclipse will be so fascinating, I’m telling you, you’ll be amazed. So the danger is, you just stare at it, you get transfixed. It’s something that’s easy to avoid. “It hurts when I do that,” so don’t do that. But it’s so striking, it’s so out of your everyday experience, that the danger is people just don’t look away. It’s kind of a cool problem to have, yeah?

Why the big to-do?
We’re celebrating the celestial event because if you think about the profound nature of the discovery that the Earth goes around the sun, that all the planets go around the sun, it changed human history, it enabled international commerce, it enables you to have deliveries by Amazon and shop for clothing at the Gap and have mobile phones designed in California manufactured overseas. It gives you tremendous insight into your place in the cosmos. So everybody who has an opportunity to see or experience an eclipse, I believe, should take it. Because this is profound.

If someone were to ask you why they should care and watch the eclipse, what would you tell them?
Two questions everybody wants to know: Where did we come from? And are we alone in the universe? And if you want to know the answers to those questions, you have to explore space. You can’t determine whether or not you’re alone in the universe, you can’t satisfactorily answer the question where did we all come from, without appreciating your place in the cosmos, without realizing there are other stars. The sun is a not especially unusual star on the outskirts of a routine spiral galaxy, the Milky Way.

So if you want to understand where we came from, you have to understand space. And the eclipse is an amazing event that helps anyone understand that we live on a sphere with a moon and a sun and other planets, and we are part of this extraordinary larger whole that you could call creation or the cosmos. It’s something that gets me every single day of my life. Every day I marvel at the insight that we are made of the same stuff, the same dust, as the stars. We are made of stardust. If you say, What’s the meaning of life? I’m not sure, but it has to do with being part of the cosmos.

The eclipse is a moment that reminds us all in just a few minutes of our extraordinary place in space on this sphere covered with liquid water, with a moon tidally locked, in orbit around the sun. We can predict these events within less than a second, because we understand the mathematics of the universe so well. And we’re just some humble species wandering around on the outskirts of a regular galaxy. We’re no big deal, yet we can understand it all, and that to me is wonderful and amazing, and the eclipse to me is part of that.

How did people react to total solar eclipses before we could understand what it was that was happening?
I don’t know! But keep in mind that there’s a current trend or fad or meme, or what have you, that the Earth might be flat. There’s a rapper running around going the Earth might be flat. No it isn’t! Nobody in medieval times thought the Earth was flat; that’s sort of a myth. People understood the Earth was a sphere, the ancient Greeks understood the Earth was a sphere.

I’m imagining people many, many thousands of years ago, before any hint of civilization came along, where it was isolated tribes. It must have just been a mystery. Maybe they thought this is the greatest thing ever, but I imagine if I were an ancient guy or gal I would be frightened. It would seem to me a real apocalyptic, world-ending bind. But then if you live through a couple of them and you have, for example, tribal elders, who go, No, just wait a minute, it’ll be OK, then maybe you look at it differently.

Why is this eclipse so special for the U.S. in particular?
Eclipses are not rare—there’s two eclipses every two years. But what’s rare is to have it sweep over the world’s third most populous country, which is what it’s going to do on August 21. Everybody who wants to can get there. People have booked hotels and made a big deal out of it. But if you live in the heartland or what have you, you can drive a few hours, wait for the eclipse, get your mind blown and then drive home. You don’t have to set up 400 tents and plan for weeks; you can just be on certain highways at the right time and you’ll have an extraordinary experience. And if you’re of means, you can take a flight anywhere near there and rent a car. It’s in the middle of the world’s third most populous country, with all kinds of infrastructure that enables anyone to drive around to get under it.

Where should be people be heading on these excursions?
Be in the path of totality. I’m looking forward to being out on the prairie, hoping to be able to see a long way in many directions so that I can see patterns sweeping across the landscape. The other big thing—I lived in the Pacific Northwest for decades. If it’s cloudy, you can’t see it. In my opinion, you want to get away from the Pacific Northwest, get east of the mountains in case it’s a cloudy day. Just as an old Northwesterner. August is usually very clear. August is when people visit the Northwest and decide to move there. But there’s also the very strong possibility that you’ll get, as we say in astronomy, “weathered out.” It’ll still get dark, and that’s amazing, but you won’t see the disk.

I imagine you want to be away from a big city, right?
You want to be away from city lights. It’s just like any astronomy event—away from city lights, and if you can get on a hilltop, more power to you.

What kind of impact do you think the eclipse could have in the long run?
We hope it raises awareness. You go about your life—you’re making a living, you’re raising a family, or you’re going to school. It’s good, it’s important, it’s vital to realize that you’re a part of this much larger whole. The universe is a big deal, and you are not. But being able to realize that is empowering on a level that’s hard to describe. It’ll change you forever, I’m telling you. It’ll change you forever. So I encourage everybody to get out there and think about what it all means. What are you doing here? How did we get here? Are there other eclipses on other worlds? Do the other beings on other worlds drive to the eclipse and wait for it? Where do we fit in? This is extraordinary. Get out there and get under it. Experience totality.

We’ve talked in the past about inspiring younger generations to engage with science. Is this one of those events that could do that? 
Oh, man, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Get kids out under the eclipse. Yes, yes, yes, this will be extraordinary. Do this. There’s nothing like it. There’s two things kids of all ages like—that’s dinosaurs and space. This is space, space, space. Get kids out there.

Is it particularly important to inspire a love for science in the current political context?
It’s absolutely an opportunity. The anti-science movement right now, especially the people the administration is hiring, is really remarkable. We remind everybody that what keeps the United States in the game is our ability to innovate. Innovation comes from science. This is one more thing to remind us all of the importance of science and discovery.