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I secretly thought space was dumb -- then the eclipse happened

Confession: I've never been able to get excited about the sky, moon and stars. But this event has brought out the best in everyone.

TyRon Robertson, a physical activity coordinator at Freeman Elementary School, reacts to witnessing his first solar eclipse on Monday.

Jake May / The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP

TyRon Robertson, a physical activity coordinator at Freeman Elementary School, reacts to witnessing his first solar eclipse on Monday.

Earlier this week, astronomer Heidi White told Metro the solar eclipse would “bring people together.” Despite our differences and the distances between us, almost the whole continent would be staring up at the same spot at the same time (with the right eye protection, of course).

I think I finally get what she was talking about.

Because I have a confession to make. Until now, despite being a science reporter, I’ve never entirely understood the appeal of the whole “space” thing.

It’s not that I had anything against astronomy or physics or earth science, I just struggled to get excited about them. Too abstract. Too much math (shudder).

Sure, I understand why they’re important: Space exploration facilitates advancements in all areas of science and tech. And, to quote my favourite TV show, space is our generation’s frontier. It’s what’s next.

But this week, I stopped faking my enthusiasm and started loving space for real. And it's all because of the eclipse, and all the people I spoke to who are so into it.

I started getting a little bit excited after speaking with York University astronomy professor Ray Jayawardhana. He loves solar eclipses so much he chases them around the world: Mongolia in 2008, Turkey in 2009, and now this.

“The total eclipse is really an immersive experience; something you see, feel and hear,” he said. Complete darkness falls midday, the air temperature drops, and animals start acting weird.

Then I met a bunch of citizen scientists with homemade radios. They were all listening to the same signals at the same time Monday to help professional scientists out with a project that will help unlock some of the secrets of why radio signals bounce around so much better when the sun’s radiation concentrates electrons in the upper atmosphere.

We’ve had it for a hundred years, but we still don’t really understand how radio works. That’s changing, thanks in part to this eclipse.

I spent Monday afternoon at the Ontario Science Centre’s eclipse party, surrounded by approximately 17 million children and lots of adults in goofy glasses walking around bumping into things.

Crowds of little kids swarmed Metro designer Andrés Plana (who dressed as an eclipse for the occasion), wanting a glimpse into his camera, which he obliged.

By 2:32 p.m., when the eclipse maxed out with 70 per cent of the sun covered, a noticeable pall had fallen despite summer heat and few clouds. The crowd erupted in cheers.

After that, I chatted with Andy Forest of Steam Labs, who collaborated with the science centre to create a device that translates the visual information of the solar eclipse into sound waves — so even people who can’t see could share in the experience.

Seriously, I’m convinced this eclipse is bringing out the best in all of us.

I think that’s what astronomer White was getting at, and I imagine it’s also what got so many people on board back in the day when someone floated the idea of putting a dude in a dune buggy on the moon.  I can only imagine the day, sometime in the 2030s, when we all stand agog, watching the first astronauts approach Mars.

Canada’s next total solar eclipse will be April 8, 2024. Total darkness will fall across a band of totality stretching from Ontario to Newfoundland. I’m planning to be in Niagara Falls.

When people are authentically, unironically jazzed about something, it’s hard not to catch their enthusiasm. The sight of so many non-scientists getting temporarily super-stoked about science, like during an eclipse, can make even skeptics like me feel pride, togetherness and public spirit.

I've got the bug now. I'll see you there. Save the date.

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