Here's what it's like to view a total solar eclipse : Life Kit "A total solar eclipse is so much more than something you just see with your eyes. It's something you experience with your whole body," says science writer David Baron.

The physical sensations of watching a total solar eclipse

The physical sensations of watching a total solar eclipse

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Science writer David Baron witnesses his first total solar eclipse in Aruba, 1998. He says seeing one is "like you've left the solar system and are looking back from some other world." Paul Myers hide caption

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Paul Myers

Science writer David Baron witnesses his first total solar eclipse in Aruba, 1998. He says seeing one is "like you've left the solar system and are looking back from some other world."

Paul Myers

David Baron can pinpoint the first time he got addicted to chasing total solar eclipses, when the moon completely covers up the sun. It was 1998 and he was on the Caribbean island of Aruba. "It changed my life. It was the most spectacular thing I'd ever seen," he says.

Baron, author of the 2017 book American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, wants others to witness its majesty too. On April 8, millions of people across North America will get that chance — a total solar eclipse will appear in the sky. Baron promises it will be a surreal, otherworldly experience. "It's like you've left the solar system and are looking back from some other world."

Baron, who is a former NPR science reporter, talks to Life Kit about what to expect when viewing a total solar eclipse, including the sensations you may feel and the strange lighting effects in the sky. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Baron views the beginning of a solar eclipse with friends in Western Australia in 2023. Baron says getting to see the solar corona during a total eclipse is "the most dazzling sight in the heavens." Photographs by David Baron; Bronson Arcuri, Kara Frame, CJ Riculan/NPR; Collage by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photographs by David Baron; Bronson Arcuri, Kara Frame, CJ Riculan/NPR; Collage by Becky Harlan/NPR

Baron views the beginning of a solar eclipse with friends in Western Australia in 2023. Baron says getting to see the solar corona during a total eclipse is "the most dazzling sight in the heavens."

Photographs by David Baron; Bronson Arcuri, Kara Frame, CJ Riculan/NPR; Collage by Becky Harlan/NPR

What does it feel like to experience a total solar eclipse — those few precious minutes when the moon completely covers up the sun?

It is beautiful and absolutely magnificent. It comes on all of a sudden. As soon as the moon blocks the last rays of the sun, you're plunged into this weird twilight in the middle of the day. You look up and the blue sky has been torn away. On any given day, the blue sky overhead acts as a screen that keeps us from seeing what's in space. And suddenly that's gone. So you can look into the middle of the solar system and see the sun and the planets together.

Can you tell me about the sounds and the emotions you're feeling?

A total solar eclipse is so much more than something you just see with your eyes. It's something you experience with your whole body. [With the drop in sunlight], birds will be going crazy. Crickets may be chirping. If you're around other people, they're going to be screaming and crying [with all their emotions from seeing the eclipse]. The air temperature drops because the sunlight suddenly turns off. And you're immersed in the moon's shadow. It doesn't feel real.

In your 2017 Ted Talk, you said you felt like your eyesight was failing in the moments before totality. Can you go into that a little more?

The lighting effects are very weird. Before you get to the total eclipse, you have a progressive partial eclipse as the moon slowly covers the sun. So over the course of an hour [or so], the sunlight will be very slowly dimming. It's as if you're in a room in a house and someone is very slowly turning down the dimmer switch. For most of that time your eyes are adjusting and you don't notice it. But then there's a point at which the light's getting so dim that your eyes can't adjust, and weird things happen. Your eyes are less able to see color. It's as if the landscape is losing its color. Also there's an effect where the shadows get very strange.

Crescent-shaped shadows cast by the solar eclipse before it reaches totality appear on a board at an eclipse-viewing event in Antelope, Ore., 2017. Kara Frame and CJ Riculan/NPR hide caption

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Kara Frame and CJ Riculan/NPR

You see these crescents on the ground.

There are two things that happen. One is if you look under a tree, the spaces between leaves or branches will act as pinhole projectors. So you'll see tiny little crescents everywhere. But there's another effect. As the sun goes from this big orb in the sky to something much smaller, shadows grow sharper. As you're nearing the total eclipse, if you have the sun behind you and you look at your shadow on the ground, you might see individual hairs on your head. It's just very odd.

Some people might say that seeing the partial eclipse is just as good. They don't need to go to the path of totality.

A partial solar eclipse is a very interesting experience. If you're in an area where you see a deep partial eclipse, the sun will become a crescent like the moon. You can only look at it with eye protection. Don't look at it with the naked eye. The light can get eerie. It's fun, but it is not a thousandth as good as a total eclipse.

A total eclipse is a fundamentally different experience, because it's only when the moon completely blocks the sun that you can actually take off the eclipse glasses and look with the naked eye at the sun.

And you will see a sun you've never seen before. That bright surface is gone. What you're actually looking at is the sun's outer atmosphere, the solar corona. It's the most dazzling sight in the heavens. It's this beautiful textured thing. It looks sort of like a wreath or a crown made out of tinsel or strands of silk. It shimmers in space. The shape is constantly changing. And you will only see that if you're in the path of the total eclipse.

So looking at a partial eclipse is not the same?

It is not at all the same. Drive those few miles. Get into the path of totality.

This is really your chance to see a total eclipse. The next one isn't happening across the U.S. for another 20 years.

The next significant total solar eclipse in the United States won't be until 2045. That one will go from California to Florida and will cross my home state of Colorado. I've got it on my calendar.


The digital story was written by Malaka Gharib and edited by Sylvie Douglis and Meghan Keane. The visual editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and sign up for our newsletter.


NPR will be sharing highlights here from across the NPR Network throughout the day Monday if you're unable to get out and see it in real time.

Correction April 3, 2024

In a previous audio version of this story, we made reference to an upcoming 2025 total solar eclipse. The solar eclipse in question will take place in 2045.

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