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    How the eclipse could help unite a fractured America

    These days, I feel like a traveling preacher — or a rabbi, perhaps.

    A recent Wednesday found me in Cleveland, sermonizing from the stage of a converted synagogue — now a concert hall — to more than 400 eager souls. Two days later, I carried the word to a packed auditorium in New York City. Via the internet, I have lately evangelized in Mesquite, Tex.; Evansville, Ind.; and Cape Elizabeth, Maine. My message: Prepare for the great and awesome day that is coming.

    On April 8, the universe will grace America with nature’s grandest spectacle, a total solar eclipse. Along a roughly 115-mile-wide zone from Texas to Maine (called the path of totality), the bright sun will vanish for up to 4½ minutes, plunging the earth into alien twilight. Meanwhile, on that day, everywhere in the contiguous United States will experience a partial solar eclipse, an interesting (albeit far less awesome) event.

    A total eclipse can be life-changing. I witnessed my first in 1998, in Aruba. At the instant the moon fully covered the sun and the blue sky fell away, the solar corona — the sun’s outer atmosphere — burst forth, shimmering like a tinsel wreath in outer space. Beside it, the planets sailed in their orbits. The sight was a revelation, for I understood viscerally that I am a mere speck on a piece of rock drifting around the sun. I now chase eclipses across the globe.

    Total eclipses can also change the course of history. They have ended and fostered armed conflict. A 19th-century eclipse helped inspire America’s rise as a scientific power, as I discovered when writing a book on that event. And this year’s eclipse, I pray, just might nudge our fractured nation in a hopeful, unified direction.

    Think you love solar eclipses? Think again. This man has seen more than 20. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

    You may recall that seven years ago another total eclipse traversed our country. On that occasion — Aug. 21, 2017 — the path of totality draped like a sash from Oregon to South Carolina, and it fell across an America that seemed on the verge of civil war.

    It was the first year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when protests and outrage frayed the country. Partisan and cultural divides deepened: red vs. blue, urban vs. rural. One week before the eclipse, darkness fell on Charlottesville, where a white-supremacist rally met counterprotesters in a deadly clash that epitomized the country’s unraveling. Yet on the day of the celestial event, America coalesced. Its focus turned outward — skyward — for a shared cosmic moment.

    At Southern Illinois University, when the lunar shadow arrived, 14,000 voices rose as one from the school’s Saluki Stadium. “It just shows us how powerful we can be when we all come together, even with everything that’s going on,” a man in the crowd told NBC News.

    In Oakland, N.J. — where townspeople gathered at the library to watch a partial eclipse but found there were not enough solar glasses for everyone to observe safely — those who had glasses shared with those who did not. “Given the experiences we’ve had around the country lately,” a woman told the local paper, “it’s good to see everyone coming together and making it work.”

    At an enormous gathering called SolarFest in Oregon’s high desert, the diverse thousands who came from all over proved so polite and cooperative that they left almost no litter when they vacated the fairgrounds. “It’s immaculate,” said one of the organizers, stunned.

    The scene repeated itself across the country, in parks and city streets, on mountaintops and beaches. Individuals became communities. Strangers were no longer strangers. Hardened people cried, hugged, fell reverentially silent.

    In this age of polarized politics, siloed entertainment and individualized news feeds, the eclipse offered a precious shared experience — one that lifted and joined rather than debased and divided. A survey by researchers at the University of Michigan estimated that more than 150 million American adults observed the 2017 eclipse directly, while another 60 million watched it on TV or the internet. “This is a level of exposure that dwarfs the viewership of Super Bowl games and ranks among the most viewed events in American history,” the study concluded.

    Other scientists at the University of California at Irvine analyzed millions of messages sent on Twitter around the time of the 2017 eclipse and found that those posted from within the path of totality and on the day of the eclipse “exhibited more awe and expressed less self-focused and more prosocial, affiliative, humble, and collective language.” These findings, the team maintained, revealed the psychological impact of the 2017 solar eclipse. “Just as the moon aligned with the sun up in the heavens, people down on earth aligned with each other in awe of this spectacular celestial event.”

    This is why I evangelize now.

    The total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024, promises to exert that unifying force even more powerfully. Almost three times as many Americans — more than 30 million — reside within the path of totality this year, and more than half of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive. I urge as many people as possible to make that journey, to situate themselves in the zone of awe.

    Our country has begun another year of bitter political campaigns, and it seems what sells is anger and division. I can tell, however, that there is a yearning for something more — something different.

    At the end of my recent talk in Cleveland, an audience member submitted a question to me onstage. “Eclipses appear to bring much of humanity together,” it began. “Why can we not continue these amazing ways … after the eclipse? How can we capitalize on them?”

    It was then that I wished I possessed the wisdom of a rabbi, for I don’t know the answer. Perhaps asking the question, however, is a start. A four-minute spectacle will not repair the fabric of our country rent by years of mutual distrust, yet if enough of us stand in the path of the moon’s shadow on April 8, the eclipse may remind us of the unity we long to restore. That alone might mend a few stitches.

    David Baron, former NPR science correspondent and recent chair in astrobiology at the Library of Congress, is author of “American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World.” He has witnessed eight total solar eclipses on five continents.

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