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The Great American Eclipse

I was not invited to play in Lyon. Whatever miniscule chance I would have had to represent the United States became moot when I did not enter the trials. However, the place to be on August 21 was not Lyon, France, but Madras, Oregon, or any of a myriad of other locations across the United States to view the total eclipse of the Sun.

Even among eclipse viewers, few appreciate what an unusual cosmic coincidence it is for the Moon's angular diameter to be almost equal to that of the Sun. While a small sample on a cosmological scale, no other planet-moon pair in the Solar System comes close. The nearest is Jupiter - Callisto, but Callisto's disk has almost 50% larger angular diameter than the sun, so would occult it for a longer period, obscuring the corona. Nor does it seem likely that rocky planets often have satellites with the Moon-Earth mass ratio of 1.2%. Should interstellar travel and tourism be possible in the future, I can imagine one of the prime celestial attractions of Earth will be the opportunity to view a solar eclipse.

I saw the annular eclipse of May, 1984. I had my eclipse glasses and pinhole camera then, and it was a notable event. I can tell you that a total eclipse is a qualitatively different experience. Approaching the first instant of totality, a cheer began to erupt among those gathered in Madras. Initially I thought it an odd response to inanimate objects obeying the laws of physics. However, upon reflection, I understand it. It truly is a beautiful sight, one that cannot be fully captured by photography or video. It is the ultimate intersection of the aesthetic and the scientific; a full appreciation requires both perspectives. Witnessing the eclipse makes clear just how terrifying this would have been to a pre-literate society. Without handy-dandy eclipse glasses you notice the dimming of the ambient light, but cannot see any direct change with the sun. Then, at the moment of totality ... poof ... the sun is gone and around its perimeter light appears to be moving out in all directions. It would not be absurd in that moment to think the sun had exploded.

A cynic might declare that America's primary cultural contribution to the world is marketing, and "The Great American Eclipse" is just that. The day before felt like the Fourth of July, what with the heat, food trucks, and t-shirt hawkers. Yet this truly was an eclipse for the people. In Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," she sings of flying a Lear Jet to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun. Many eclipses are in inconvenient places, and require substantial resources to observe. It was estimated that 200 million people live within a day's drive of the path of totality for this eclipse, and judging by the traffic on the way home, Madras got more than its fair share.

Most people today remember Edmund Halley for his eponymous comet which reappears about every 76 years. During his lifetime, however, Halley was better known for using his friend Newton's new theory of motion to predict the 1715 eclipse in England. This was a stunning confirmation of Newton, and underpinned the emerging Enlightenment belief in a clockwork universe. Our civilization's harnessing of nature in the Industrial Revolution was not far behind. It was also a remarkable coincidence, as there was another total eclipse in England in 1724, predicted by Halley as well, and with the exception of a short-totality eclipse in 1927 obscured by weather, none since. The Universe can be capricious, but it is not arbitrary. It may be decades before an eclipse shows up in your vicinity, but if the calculations say it will, you can meet it and rely on the show.

So it is with bridge. Pascal put order in the probabilities we rely on, in contrast to the determinism of an eclipse. The mindset it takes to succeed at bridge is very much the same manner of thinking as predicting an eclipse. We have all had the experience of the moon and sun lining up for us and everything we do that day works.

The friction of the Moon's tides cause it to slowly recede from the Earth, and the Sun slowly grows in size in response to consuming the fuel in its core. Six hundred million years from now those effects will cause there to be a final total eclipse. If humans are still alive then, I would imagine that moment a mournful one. They will regard our time as one of opportunity, when with a little effort most humans could see a total eclipse in their lifetime. If you missed this one, another will arrive in North America on April 8, 2024, coincidentally another Monday. I will be there.

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