Tyler Nordgren wants to make sure that what happened to him as a nine-year-old astronomy nut doesn’t happen to you this summer.
Nordgren, a professor of physics at the University of Redlands and author of Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses From Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016), talked at Town Hall Seattle earlier this month about the book and his work to educate the public about the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21, 2017.
As a kid Nordgren was passionate about astronomy and already knew he wanted to be an astronaut. He was living in Portland, Oregon in 1979 when a total solar eclipse passed right over his house.
“Because of the news warning us about looking at the Sun, I was sure that if I accidentally looked at the Sun during the eclipse, there were these special rays that would come out and burn my eyes,” he recalled. “So I hid in the house with the curtains drawn and I watched it on TV.”
He could tell the eclipse was happening because the house got really dark, but that was his one and only take-away from the event.
“One of the things that has driven me to work on this and to help promote this eclipse that is coming up this year is I don’t want to see another nine-year-old child out there having the experience that I did!” Nordgren said.
Good things come to those who wait
“It took me twenty years to eventually, finally see (a total solar eclipse) for myself,” Nordgren noted. He described what it’s like, the things that happen approaching and during totality, but said that he had an unexpected reaction to that first totality.
“As an astronomer, I know the mechanics of the celestial alignment, yet in this moment of totality, I fully understand the difference between knowledge and feeling,” he said. “When I finally, after 20 years, got a chance to see this for myself as a professional astronomer south of Budapest in Hungary in 1999, I swear the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It still remains the most amazing thing I have ever seen in the sky.”
“I could understand why generations of human beings would cower in fear at this,” he added, “and wonder, ‘When is the life-giving Sun going to come back?’”
Nordgren described some of the stories different cultures cooked up to explain eclipses, and also discussed some of the science done during eclipses, including the determination, from spectra, that the Sun was largely made of hydrogen and contained some iron. Helium was discovered on the Sun 25 years before it was found on Earth. Perhaps the most famous science made possible by an eclipse was the determination that mass can indeed bend light waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity and measured during a solar eclipse in 1919. The media coverage turned Einstein from an obscure physicist into an icon.
“This is what made Einstein Einstein in the popular culture,” Nordgren said.
Do not miss this!
This August’s total solar eclipse will be the first to cross the United States from coast to coast since 1918. Nordgren, also an artist, has designed travel posters for many of the spots along the path of totality, and shared them as he talked about the path the eclipse will take. You can see, and buy, them on his website.
He pointed out that virtually everyone in the country will be able to see some degree of partial solar eclipse, but he urged us all not to settle and stay home just because there might be traffic.
“Do not miss this!” Nordgren urged.
“The difference between being inside and outside that path of totality is literally the difference between night and day,” he noted. “Inside totality, the sky goes black, the Sun turns dark, the stars come out, the corona is visible. Outside totality, yeah, it kinda gets sorta dark. Yeah, use your glasses. Yeah, there’s a bite taken out of the Sun. But it will pale in comparison to what you experience—not just what you see, but what you feel inside that path of totality.”
Nordgren said a good solar eclipse may be just the thing that we need.
“In difficult times, when, heaven knows, there have been lots of things that do not unite us, here is going to be a moment in which we are all united under the shadow of the Moon, and we will all be seeing this together,” he said. “This will become the most photographed, the most Tweeted, the most Instagrammed, the most shared group moment in the history of the world.”
“That’s what we have to look forward to this summer,” he concluded.