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It is important to have great friends. It is really important to have great friends who ask great questions. This past weekend my family and I drove a few hundred miles north to view the 2017 North American total solar eclipse, along with about 500,000 of our closest friends. That is not so very unusual. We had a great time and enjoyed ourselves. Everyone felt it was worth the sleepless night and the endless traffic jam. I would go again next week if it was going to happen again.
What was unusual was a question that one of my really great friends asked me about a week before, “Why are you going? What is the big deal?” You have to understand, he is an engineer. He loves science, but to him, this was kind of a silly thing to do. Peoples for millennia have feared the solar eclipse. The sun was a god to them, the bringer of life, of food. The eclipse was a terrible battle that could threaten their lives. Today, we are an enlightened people. We know that this is just our own moon passing between us and the sun and casting a shadow on the earth. It’s not magical, mystical or supernatural. We totally understand it. We knew it was coming years in advance. So why go through all the trouble of going to see it?
I think it is a very good question.

The great ones

On Monday, August 21’s at 11:33 a.m. The sun went out! O.K. not really. I was standing directly in the shadow of the moon. The air had dropped in temperature 20+ degrees. I was staring at the sun’s corona with my bare eyes. The moon did not care that I was there. The sun did not care that tens of thousands, maybe millions, of insignificant carbon-based life forms stared at the moon as it blotted out the suns’ rays. Yet I was thrilled to be there. And it made me think about other shadows.
As an engineer, it is staggeringly obvious to me that I do the things I do not because of my own greatness but because of those whose shadow I stand it. People like James Clerk Maxwell who had a few things to say about the light that emanated from the sun. Sir Isaac Newton, who had a great deal to say about how celestial bodies move through the heavens. Galileo Galilei who challenged the Geocentric beliefs of the day at great peril to himself. Being an electrical engineer, I owe a great deal to Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (that’s a mouthful), who is credited with inventing the electric battery.
The place we stayed was the back yard of the friend of a friend. Their dog, a boxer, ran around, excited by the buzz of people and activity. Her name is Tesla (although I think she was named after the car and not the man). Nikola Tesla was an extraordinary man who made great contributions to the design of modern alternating current electrical supply systems.
How about Ada Lovelace? She was a mathematician who lived in the 1800’s and did great work on mechanical computers. She created the first algorithm and became the first programmer. Her vision of the capability of computers to far outstretch the simple ability to crunch numbers lead to the plethora of microcontrollers and computers that we find ourselves surrounded by today.
It seems appropriate to mention Annie Scott Dill Maunder (think Maunder minimum) who was a pioneer in astronomical photography and whose specific work on solar sunspots allowed her and her husband to show that specific regions of the sun’s surface were the source of geomagnetic storms. Not incidentally, she was the first person to photograph the sun’s corona during a solar eclipse (1898).
Why do we stand in their shadows? I think that Truth and Knowledge are like light and the work that these people did to further our understanding of the universe casts a shadow, affects our lives, every day. I could write a hundred pages about the great people who have made it possible to do the things I do at work every day.

You haven’t answered the question

None of that really explains why I went to view a shadow cast on a tiny speck of dust in a great cosmic ocean. Why watch a summer electrical storm? Why visit a museum? I guess you could ask why I like to stand on the shore of the ocean and stare out to sea or lay on my back and stare into the depths of our galaxy. Why marvel at the birth of a child?
No, it doesn’t explain why I do all those things, but doing those does tell you a great deal about why I became an engineer. Life is about discovering new things; learning about and understanding how things work. If our ancestors were not curious about the world around them, we would still be eating raw food and hanging around the trees. Curiosity drives our society and fuels our imaginations. I think it may be one of the greatest reasons for being alive.
Standing under a total solar eclipse, and thinking about what it means and why it is important, helps me understand my place in the universe. I hope you will always stay curious.

Final thoughts

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