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A moment of awe as clouds clear in time for eclipse in Madison

August 22, 2017

A collective roar of “oohs” and “aahs” swept across UW-Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace about 12:30 pm Monday as the clouds parted to reveal the emerging solar eclipse.

For the next two hours, the nearly 2,200 visitors to the Terrace donned their special glasses to steal a glimpse of the first total solar eclipse since 1979 to traverse the length of the contiguous United States.

“It was amazing,” said Mary Hurley, a campus payroll and benefits specialist.

Courtney Byelich, music committee adviser for the Wisconsin Union Directorate, called the eclipse “probably the biggest astrophysics event out here since Neil deGrasse Tyson,” the prominent astrophysicist who gave a talk at the terrace in 2012.

Other viewers across Madison set up their cameras on State Street, while shoppers peeked their heads out into the open air to catch a glimpse under still gloomy skies.

North Side resident Bill Gaydon watched the eclipse’s reflection through a drainage ditch at Warner Park, which produced an image “as good as I saw on TV,” he said.

He gathered on a bridge with about 15 other people, watching the sun glow off of stagnant water, sans glasses. Gaydon called the experience “remarkable.”

Madison is a few hundred miles from the path of totality — where the moon completely obscured the sun. But local viewers could still witness the sun about 85 percent obscured at the local 1:15 p.m. eclipse peak.

At the Terrace, several viewers were initially disappointed as thick clouds covered the sky during the first 45 minutes of potential viewing in the area.

Michael Leidig, an astronomy major at UW-Madison, was “kinda bummed.”

Leidig, sitting on a picnic table with his roommates, Jacob Struve and Michael Mussar, pointed to clear blue sky across the lake, hoping for the best.

“We don’t have anything else to do,” Leidig said.

The trio were lucky to score a few sets of glasses. Over the past few days, spiking demand for the glasses caused prices to skyrocket, with some outlets selling them for as much as $20. The glasses allowed viewers to watch the eclipse without incurring permanent eye damage.

As of Monday afternoon, no eye-related injuries or vision problems have been reported by emergency rooms or eye vision doctors, hospital officials said. But they noted it could take a day or even a few days for people to experience symptoms of damage to their retinas.

Ben Pierce, the Union’s special events intern who planned the “pop-up” event, handed out 250 pairs of glasses for free at about 11:00 a.m. They were claimed in about 10 minutes.

Viewers got their break at 12:30 p.m. as the cloud cover scattered and revealed the sun.

They cheered, reaching for their eclipse glasses or pinhole viewers — homemade devices made to view the sun’s shadow. Several people attempted to take photos through the glasses’ dark frames, catching just a sliver of orange light. Others took photos of themselves staring at the sun, capturing a moment that won’t return again till 2024 — the next scheduled total solar eclipse in the United States.

Barbara Chatterton, whose son sent her several pictures of the path of totality in the state of Oregon, excitedly shared her glasses with other visitors who didn’t have a pair. Chatterton was “initially disappointed” by the cloudy weather, but was enjoying the delayed appearance.

“The birds didn’t stop singing,” Chatterton said, referencing the strange behavior described among animals during eclipses.

Leo Rubinkowski, an assistant music adviser for the Wisconsin Union Directorate, made a camera obscura for the event — a large cardboard camera that can focus on the sun, but doesn’t betray much of the eclipse’s shape. Rubinkowski and several other Union employees sat at a table on the Terrace stage shortly after the peak, chatting and watching the crowd.

Rubinkowski, who studied physics as an undergraduate, was underwhelmed.

“You know, the world turns,” he said.

State Journal reporter David Wahlberg contributed to this report.