The first e-mail came in almost 10 years ago, and the executive director of the convention and visitors’ bureau of tiny Hopkinsville, Kentucky, presumed it was a joke. Who thinks that far ahead? The answer, of course, is that eclipse chasers think that far ahead, and one of them had e-mailed the town of Hopkinsville because he knew what was coming, for precisely two minutes and 40 seconds, on the afternoon of August 21, 2017—a total solar eclipse, the first visible from the United States since 1979.
This unique map shows the path of the moon’s umbral shadow – in which the sun will be completely obscured by the moon – during the total solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, as well as the fraction of the sun’s area covered by the moon outside the path of totality. Credit: NASA
While the eclipse will cast a shadow as the moon traverses the United States from West to East—81 percent of the country will be within 600 miles of the path of totality, which means this is likely to be the most-viewed solar eclipse ever–Hopkinsville has been identified as the point of “greatest eclipse.” Which means the moon will travel closest to the earth when it passes over Hopkinsville, completely blotting out the sun for those 160 seconds. Which also means that Hopkinsville, a town of roughly 33,000 people tucked into the southwest corner of Kentucky, will be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country both on that Monday of that eclipse, and during an expansive festival on the weekend before.
“What a way to bring science to the forefront of the conversation,” Brooke Jung, the city’s solar eclipse marketing and events consultant, tells NOW.SPACE. “This is the largest event that has ever taken place in the community.”
How big is it? It’s so big that Jung honestly doesn’t know how big it might actually wind up being. Hopkinsville has spent much of the past two years planning for this. A couple of months ago, Jung spoke at a solar eclipse conference in South Carolina; when she said that Hopkinsville was expecting maybe 50,000 people to attend, someone asked her, “How did you come up with that number?” They thought perhaps it was low, that the number could be more like 100,000.
With that in mind, Hopkinsville is pulling out all the stops. Jung says they’ve already got about 20 different events planned for that weekend; hotels and campsites in the area are filling up fast, as well, as people solidify their plans—most hotels are asking that people call them directly to make their reservations. EclipseCon, scheduled for August 19-20, will feature Walking Dead star Santiago Cirillo and voice of Jem and the Holograms Samantha Newark. NASA will be broadcasting live, with planetary scientist Renee Weber providing commentary, and Hopkinsville is expecting an influx of international scientists, as well, with about 150 due to come from the United Kingdom, 25 from Japan, and 35 from Brazil. A large contingent from Sky & Telescope magazine is expected, too. (As a taste of what’s to come, Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist known as “Mr. Eclipse,” will deliver a free lecture at Hopkinsville Community College on June 22.)
Brooke Jung with Jenean M. Hampton, Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky.
And even the papacy is involved: Brother Guy Consolmango, director of the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, will give a presentation entitled, “Faith and Science,” on the Sunday night before the eclipse.
But hey, why not get spiritual about it? As Dr. Richard Gelderman, director of the Hardin Planetarium at Western Kentucky University in nearby Bowling Green, told Atlas Obscura, there are few things weirder to witness in person than a solar eclipse: “A total eclipse is a complete and total change. A total eclipse is something that should not happen, and your body knows it. And everything in your body totally sends off chemical alarms saying, ‘Beep, beep, beep. Something is wrong here, because, in the middle of the day, the sun just disappeared,’ And the most common expression when you look at videos of people experiencing a total solar eclipse is ‘holy s–t.’”
That said, Hopkinsville is not a complete newcomer to strange occurrences in the skies: On August 21, 1955, a man named Billy Taylor was drawing water from a well at a farmhouse in the neighboring town of Kelly when he saw an object streak across the sky and diappear beyond the tree line. An hour later, drawn outside by a barking dog, Taylor and another man spotted a creature and went into the house to grab their shotguns, and that’s where things got weird.
For the next three hours, the two men and nine others in the farmhouse insisted they were under siege from these creatures, who showed their faces in their windows and at one point, grabbed Taylor by the hair. When there was a lull in the “battle,” they went to police headquarters in Hopkinsville and reported the incident. Police found nothing, apart from evidence of gunfire and holes in the window screens—many observers believe the men were actually shooting at great horned owls–but the incident became internationally renowned, and the area commemorates it every year with a “Little Green Men” days festival, which will also occur on the same weekend of the eclipse—because it occurred 62 years to the day before the eclipse will pass through Hopkinsville.
And if that’s not strange enough for you, there’s also this: Hopkinsville’s most famous resident is the late Edgar Cayce, a Christian mystic who is considered one of the founders of the New Age movement.
But for the most part, the eclipse will allow people who come to Hopkinsville to celebrate hard science, rather than New Age theorism or UFO’s (and enjoy some hard liquor at one of the town’s local distilleries at the same time, if they wish). Some events—including conversations with scientists and astronomers–are likely to broadcast live on the Hopkinsville eclipse’s Facebook page, and more events will likely be announced in the coming months.
Interestingly enough, Hopkinsville may also have competition: Carbondale, Illinois, some 140 miles northwest of Hopkinsville, will prove the eclipse’s greatest point of duration, and that city is also targeting eclipse chasers. But Jung downplayed any notion of a “rivalry” with Carbondale.
“My goal,” she says, “is that everyone chasing the path of totality has clear blue skies. I’m hoping everyone gets excited about the conversations, and the science.”