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Science

What the 2017 total solar eclipse has to do with Apple's Siri

When a cosmic event starts appearing in ad campaigns, you know it's something big and on everyone's mind. The total solar eclipse on August 21 has a cameo in an advert for Apple's virtual assistant Siri. Here's why.

"Hey, Siri, take a selfie," commands actor and wrestler Dwayne Johnson, known also as The Rock, as he floats in a space. And click goes his phone, before he muses, "Hope I don't cause an eclipse."

Excuse me, Mr. Rock? Hope you don't cause a what? There's no time for nonsense like that, me ol' mate. You're due back at a studio …

… And boom! There he is crashing through the roof of a film set in a capsule of some kind. He steps out, poses and says, "This one is for Earth!" and then plods on with his day, chatting casually with his dithering human assistant. All that's left of the director on the make-believe film shoot, meanwhile, is a bewildered Brit, muttering "cock a doodle doo" over and over again.

Makes you wonder what Siri would do with a cock and a doodle do … but I digress.

The point here is the 2017 North American total solar eclipse. Siri's creators at Apple have niftily slipped it into an advert for their much maligned artificially intelligent virtual assistant, Siri.

They must have thought it was worth it. But is the eclipse that ad-worthy? Is it really at the forefront of every American's mind? It would seem so.

"The public excitement about the eclipse is the greatest for any space-related event since at least the first space shuttle launch, and possibly even the Apollo 11 moon landing nearly 50 years ago," says Mat Kaplan, host and producer of Planetary Radio at the Planetary Society in the US.

A shared experience

Kaplan says the eclipse is an opportunity for people to get personally involved in "something truly historic, a grand cosmic happening that we can experience and share on the emotional as well as an intellectual level."

Ringförmige Sonnenfinsternis in Teilen Südamerikas und Afrikas (picture alliance/dpa/K. Mayama)

Solar eclipses - in all their various forms - make great photos. But Siri is unlikely to be able to produce anything like this

True, the eclipse promises to be an amazing cosmic event. It will cast a moon shadow right through the central US on August 21, creating a significant moment in science, all right. But how has it become such a huge cultural moment as well?

Professor Roberta Garner, a sociologist at DePaul University in Chicago, agrees the eclipse is getting more attention than those in the past.

Writers, says Garner, have referred to eclipses into their novels and scripts to make them seem dramatic, but the general public was not very involved.

"When the partial eclipse took place here in Chicago in the 1990s [Ed.: it was May 10, 1994], it was a very happy moment for everyone," says Garner. "We all left work and ran outside with our special glasses and pinhole boxes, but it was just that, a fun distraction from work and a social event, not a powerful collective experience!"

You can't own an eclipse

This year's eclipse, on the other hand, is billed as a total collective experience for Americans. And that has at least something to do with the technology we carry around all day – whether it's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, Facebook's M, Microsoft Cortana calling the shots, or the way we, and "especially the millennial generation," use social media. Garner suggests it's to do with the way people want to have experiences now.

"Events and experiences have become more important than owning possessions," she says. "People want to feel part of the experience and not be 'left out' – social media have encouraged participants in events to share their experiences and the eclipse is one of these events."

And its very short duration fits well with our "ever-shorter attention spans," says Garner. But people are also more aware of science these days.

Indonesien Sonnenfinsternis (Reuters/G. Lotulung)

Don't be the guy who missed out. Always make sure you get proper protective eyewear before observing an eclipse!

More people have access to science education, and science is in the news a lot, often for contentious reasons. So participating in the eclipse, says Garner, is a way for "people to demonstrate that they want to understand the world scientifically, and that they are not part of the 'obscurantist' wing of public opinion that dismisses science."

We in Europe should take note.

"I think it's hard for Europeans to understand how many Americans remain not only ignorant of scientific knowledge, but outright anti-science and in the grip of very primitive magical thinking," says Garner. "So the interest in and understanding of the eclipse shown by Americans is a very positive thing."

Cosmic medicine for society

Science, as Garner indicates, has become one of the great dividers in American society since President Donald Trump took office, much as the eclipse will draw a line right through the middle of the country. It will create its very own, albeit temporary, north-south divide. The question is whether the eclipse – this collective American moment – holds any powers to heal the country.

"I've been told by many veteran eclipse chasers – this will be my first time – that totality is a life-changing experience," says Kaplan, "the kind one always remembers and treasures, with bonds created among all who witness it."

Kaplan says he has "marveled at how deeply American culture has adopted this phenomenon." He is cautiously optimistic about its impact on the national psyche.

"I hope I have no illusions regarding the possible influence of a grand cosmic event like this one. But I want to believe that it may remind us that we all live under the same star on a small, fragile world, a 'pale blue dot,' to use the phrase made famous by one of the Planetary Society's founders, Carl Sagan. I'll be happy," says Kaplan, "if it moves anyone toward a greater sense of what we have in common."   

But what of those Americans who will miss out on the eclipse or those for whom at best it will be a partial solar eclipse – as it will be for the residents of divided Charlottesville, Virginia. Is there any chance they might use this moment in history to heal some divisions from history?

"No," says Garner, "unfortunately the eclipse will not heal our divisions. As you can see from the events in Charlottesville, our divisions are deep and potentially very dangerous. It will take more than an eclipse to heal them!"

So Siri, what do you say to that?

 

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