Category Archives: 2017 total solar eclipse

Solar eclipses and the stature of science

A total solar eclipse that crossed the American West in 1878 helped ignite a great boom in science in the United States. David Baron is hoping that, in an era in which people have to march in the streets in support of science, the total solar eclipse that will cross the nation next month will be similarly inspirational. Baron, a former science editor for National Public Radio, is the author of American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). He spoke about the book last week at the Pacific Science Center, part of the center’s Science in the City lecture series.

Baron saw his first total solar eclipse from Aruba in 1998.

“I was just dumbfounded,” he said at the sight of the eclipse, which revealed stars in the daytime and Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus. “There, among the planets was this thing; this glorious, bewildering thing. It looked liked a wreath woven from silvery thread and it just hung out there in space, shimmering.”

It was the Sun’s corona, and Baron said the photos you’ve seen don’t do it justice. Soon, the eclipse was over.

“The world returned to normal, but I had changed,” Baron said. “That’s how I became an eclipse chaser.”

He said he decided that day, on the beach in Aruba, that he wanted to write a book about solar eclipses. He also figured 2017 would be the year to release it, with public interest in solar eclipses likely to be at its apex because of this year’s eclipse. So his book has been 19 years in the making. He said the work started in earnest about seven years ago, when he went researching for interesting eclipse stories to tell.

The American eclipse of 1878

Battle Lake markerBaron came upon a historical marker next to Battle Lake in the Wyoming Sierras, which claims that Thomas Edison came up with the idea to use bamboo as a filament for an electric light bulb while fishing at the lake in 1878. Baron found no evidence that this was actually true, but Edison was involved in eclipse watching in Wyoming that summer, for the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. The eclipse ran from Montana south down across the American frontier through Texas. At the time, Baron noted, Europeans were the clear leaders in eclipse science.

“Here was America’s chance to shine—or an opportunity to slip up and embarrass ourselves—but if all went well we would show the rest of the world what we were capable of as a scientific nation,” Baron said, “and so the eclipse was a big, national undertaking.” The eclipse and the expeditions to observe it received in-depth coverage in the newspapers.

Edison was among a group that went to Rawlins, Wyoming to view the eclipse. The group included Norman Lockyer, who had discovered helium on the Sun and founded the journal Nature; and James Craig Watson, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, who was in search of the hypothetical planet Vulcan that could explain orbital anomalies of Mercury.

David Baron

Author David Baron spoke about his book American Eclipse on July 19, 2017 at the Pacific Science Center. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Also out west was Maria Mitchell, professor and director of the Vassar College Observatory, who brought a group of Vassar students to Denver to show that women could do science, too. For Edison’s part, he was anxious to test an invention he called the tasimeter, intended to detect minuscule changes in temperature. Astronomers were interested in the device, which might reveal if the Sun’s corona gave off heat.

“These three main characters of mine had a lot on the line,” Baron said, and on the day of the eclipse they declared great success and the press was highly positive, though neither Edison, Watson, nor Mitchell really achieved their set goals.

“Maria Mitchell did help open the doors of science and higher education to women, but it’s not like male scientists suddenly embraced their female counterparts,” Baron noted. “It was the beginning of a long, hard, continuing struggle.”

Watson didn’t find Vulcan, of course; the precession of Mercury’s orbit was explained later through Einstein’s general relativity. Edison’s tasimeter never lived up to the hype. He did head home and start work on the light bulb, though not in the way the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming would have you believe.

“The eclipse of 1878 did not illuminate America in the way the historical marker claims,” Baron said. “However it did enlighten America, helping to push this upstart nation toward what it soon would become—the undeniable global superpower in science, a country that would, in this intellectual realm, eclipse the world.”

Learning from history

Baron sees an interesting parallel with next month’s total solar eclipse.

“Once again the Moon’s shadow will visit us at an interesting time in our intellectual development,” he noted. “Today the issue isn’t whether America can rise up and take on the world in science, the question is whether America can maintain its global lead.”

It will undoubtedly be the most widely viewed total solar eclipse in human history. We’ll see whether it has the power to change hearts, minds, and the course of history.


You can purchase American Eclipse though the link above or by clicking the image of the book cover. Purchases made through links on Seattle Astronomy support our ability to bring you interesting astronomy stories. Thank you!

Astronomy on Tap plus Nordgren eclipse talk highlight week’s events

Another episode of Astronomy on Tap Seattle is on the calendar for this week, and astronomer, artist, and author Tyler Nordgren will visit the Museum of Flight to talk about his latest book about total solar eclipses.

The whole premise of Astronomy on Tap is that astronomy is even better with beer. This month we go even one step further, learning how beer isn’t possible without science as we go “From Stars to Beer.” The gathering will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 26 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

AoT co-host Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein will give a talk titled, “An Unbeerlievable Tale: How atoms come together in stars to make the most glorious structure in the low-redshift universe: beer.” That may be the longest subtitle ever, too! Dr. Meredith Rawls will discuss her research about “Weighing Stars with Starquakes” with a fantastic technique called asteroseismology.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. It’s free, but buy beer. Bring your own chair to create premium front-row seating in Peddler’s outdoor beer garden.

Nordgren on Eclipses

We’ve covered a number of talks by Tyler Nordgren over the last several years. Nordgren, astronomy professor at the University of Redlands, is also an author, artist, dark-sky advocate, and entertaining presenter. He’ll be at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 29 to talk about his latest book, Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses (Basic Books, 2016).

The book is part travelogue covering some of Nordgren’s recent eclipse-chasing adventures, part history of eclipses and the myths and science surrounding them, and part primer for the total solar eclipse that will be visible from the United States next month. It’s a marvelous volume and we recommend it highly.

Nordgren spoke about the book at Town Hall Seattle back in January. You can read our re-cap of that talk and our review of the book. Nordgren will sign copies of Sun Moon Earth following his talk Saturday. Grab the book by clicking the book cover or link above; it helps Seattle Astronomy exist!

Star parties galore

The Seattle Astronomical Society will be involved in three star parties this weekend. The Covington Community Park star party will be held at 10 p.m. Friday, July 28 in said park. Volunteers from the Boeing and Tacoma societies also help out with this event.

SAS will hold its free monthly public star parties at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 29 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather cancels these star parties, so watch the SAS website or social media for updates. But hey, we’re on a good-weather roll!

Jazz Under the Stars

Jazz Under the StarsThe Tacoma Astronomical Society and Pacific Lutheran University physics department will lead stargazing at PLU’s Keck Observatory on Thursday, July 27 following the PLU Jazz Under the Stars concert. The artist for the free concert, which begins at 7 p.m. in the outdoor amphitheater of the Mary Baker Russell Music Center at PLU, is Anjali Natarajan, a Brazilian jazz vocalist out of Olympia. If the weather is bad the stargazing may be off, but the concert will just move indoors.

Jazz Under the Stars concerts will also be held on the next two Thursdays, August 3 and 10.


 

Two chicks and a cool eclipse product

An Oregon-based company has created a fun item to commemorate the upcoming total solar eclipse. Two Chicks Conspiracy is selling a fashionable key ring and fob that features an image of a total solar eclipse.

The two chicks are Kimberly Kelly and Joanna Rosinska, who founded Two Chicks Conspiracy, a casual fashion accessory company, back in 2013.

“It actually all started because I needed a new belt,” Kelly said. The company had some stops and starts because it was difficult to find a U.S.-based manufacturer that could do the sublimation—printing on polyester webbing—that was needed to make their creative belts. They finally found a company in Alabama that would work with them at their relatively modest production level.

The bulk of Two Chicks Conspiracy’s products are belts that are really wearable art, with designs based on nature and native culture as well as cityscapes and activities such as cycling. They have several designs that are space themed, which came about because of Rosinska’s personal interest in both astrology and astronomy.

Solar Eclipse key fob“Gazing into the night sky is good for the soul,” she said.

The company is based in Albany, Oregon, which is within the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse, and so a product featuring the eclipse seemed a natural. Kelly and Rosinska have used the smartphone app Solar Eclipse Timer to scope out a good nearby viewing spot for eclipse day.

Check out Two Chicks Conspiracy for some cool products made in the USA.


Two Chicks Conspiracy is a Seattle Astronomy advertiser.

AstronoMay and more at PacSci

It’s been a month filled with astronomy at Pacific Science Center, and they’ll wrap it up big this weekend with their celebration of AstronoMay Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. According to Dave Cuomo, supervisor for science interpretation programs and the Willard Smith Planetarium at the center, there will be a lot going on.

“We will have expanded planetarium shows,” Cuomo said. “We will have lectures about astronomy featured on our Science on a Sphere exhibit. We will talk about astrobiology in some of those. We will have space scientists that visitors can speak with and talk about their study and research about astronomy. And, weather permitting, we will have some solar telescopes out so you can safely observe the Sun.”

Planetarium-palooza

Willard Smith PlanetariumThere’s a great variety of selections for shows in the planetarium. One that will run this weekend is called “The Search for Life.”

“It will be an exploration of the different ways that astrobiologists are looking for life, both in the solar system and outside of the solar system,” Cuomo said. That show is a great complement to the “Mission: Find Life!” exhibit about astrobiology that is presently in the center’s Portal to Current Research space. (See our post from last month for more about that.) Another show, titled “Let’s Explore Light,” is about the basic physics of light.

A third planetarium show called “The Skies of Ancient China,” created to complement the popular Terracotta Warriors exhibit at the center, looks at more than 4,000 years of Chinese astronomy. Cuomo noted that Chinese astronomers in the day had a pretty high-stakes job.

“They were hired by the emperor because the emperor ruled the Earth because he had the mandate from the heavens,” Cuomo explained, “so he needed to be able to know what was going to happen in the sky.”

The astronomers predicted planetary conjunctions and eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Conjunctions in particular were considered omens of pending regime change, and, say what you will about whether the heavens influence lives on Earth, a couple of empires actually did flip at around the time of a conjunction. More amazing is the accuracy of both the Chinese astronomical observations and their record keeping.

“Modern astronomers have associated at least nine supernova remnants with ‘guest stars’ that the Chinese observed and recorded the location of,” Cuomo marveled. “There is also almost two thousand years of history of a returning star every 76 years, which we now know was Halley’s Comet.”

Cuomo found it interesting that there wasn’t much mythology around the heavens with the Chinese astronomers as compared to that in many other cultures. He and three of the center’s planetarians created the show with research help from the British Library, the Hong Kong Space Museum, and many others across the country and the world.

The daily schedule for planetarium shows is on the PacSci website and also on our Seattle Astronomy calendar page. We saw “The Skies of Ancient China” last week and found it to be exceptionally well done.

Solar eclipse

The astronomy doesn’t stop once May ends. The Pacific Science Center is gearing up for the total solar eclipse that will happen on August 21. The entire month of August will be PacSci “Up in the Sky.”

“We will talk about solar astronomy, observational astronomy, weather; anything that you look up to see, we’ll want to talk about,” Cuomo said. They’ll also have eclipse glasses on hand for safe viewing of the Sun, and probably some solar projectors for watching the eclipse.

Although the eclipse will only be partial in Seattle, the center plans to open early, at 8:30, that morning.

“We will have solar telescopes available and educators talking about the eclipse and the science of the eclipse,” Cuomo said. First contact—when the Moon starts moving across the face of the Sun—will happen at 9:08 a.m. at PacSci, and it will be over by 11:30. But they’ll have live feeds from other eclipse events from all across the country so you can keep watching.

Cuomo will be in Madras, Oregon for the total eclipse, along with other educators from the Pacific Science Center in partnership with Lowell Observatory. They’re leading a four-day trip to view the total eclipse. Space is limited; if you’re interested in going along, you can find out more online.


Podcast of our interview with Dave Cuomo

Do not miss this! Tyler Nordgren and solar eclipses

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.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren reads an excerpt from his book Sun Moon Earth during a presentation January 14, 2017 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

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?’”

Eclipse science

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.


Further reading: Also check out our review of Sun Moon Earth, posted in December, and our article about Nordgren’s keynote address at the Seattle Astronomical Society annual banquet in 2014.

Total solar eclipse 2017 in Music City

You can’t blame people in Nashville for being excited about the total solar eclipse that will darken the city on August 21, 2017.

“The last time the path of totality crossed through town Nashville wasn’t even a thing!” laughed Derrick Rohl, manager of the Sudekum Planetarium at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. Indeed, the last total solar eclipse there happened on July 29, 1478.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Rohl said.

Music City Solar EclipseRohl’s big role in the planetarium’s preparation for the eclipse has been the creation of an exciting new show about eclipses. Titled Eclipse: The Sun Revealed, it has been in the works for more than a year. It starts off with a look at the ways people have responded to total solar eclipses over time.

“It gives people a great look at different cultural histories, ways that different cultures have interpreted eclipses and just how they would react,” Rohl said. Eclipse lore is filled with serpents and dragons and other scary creatures eating the Sun. The show also explores the geometry of eclipses so viewers will better understand what’s happening, and takes a look back at the interesting science that has been accomplished during total solar eclipses.

Of course, it also has the obligatory lessons about how to safely view the eclipse, and Rohl says they stress that during totality, it’s OK to look up without eye protection.

“It’s one of the greatest views that nature has for us and we would hate to have anyone miss that,” Rohl said.

Eclipse: The Sun RevealedThe show closes out with a story about someone seeing a recent eclipse, “so that people can get an idea of just what a profound, impactful experience it will be,” Rohl said.

Eclipse: The Sun Revealed will premiere next weekend, January 21, exactly seven months before the total solar eclipse will hit town. Rohl said they’ve also sold it to planetariums in four other states and others are expressing interest.

Speaking of eye safety, that’s been a big investment for the Adventure Science Center, which ordered some 300,000 pairs of eclipse glasses.

“We have pallets and pallets of eclipse glasses sitting out on a loading dock now,” Rohl laughed. The glasses are earmarked for the city’s school kids, science center visitors, hotels, the convention and visitors bureau, and others. Center staff are helping teachers with lesson plans about eclipses, and are helping everyone from city officials to park rangers and bus drivers learn about the eclipse. That’s for good reason; Rohl says they’ve heard estimates that as many as two million visitors may hit Nashville for the eclipse.

Bracing for visitors

“We’re trying to prepare as many people around town as we can to be experts,” he said. “We’re trying to connect as many people as we can just to make sure that this a smooth experience for the huge amount of people that will be here to share it with us.”

In addition to the planetarium show, they’re planning an eclipse festival for the weekend before August 21. While many of the events remain tentative at this date, the festival will likely include lots of information about the eclipse, and Rohl expects it will also touch on virtual reality, robotics, and other cool topics.

“We’re not just limiting it to astronomy; we’re really expanding it to all the different science that we’d like to have people exploring and understanding and appreciating,” he said.

Other attractions of Nashville

One of the reasons that visitor estimates are so high in Nashville is that Music City is already a great tourist draw.

“Nashville is such a tourist friendly city even without an eclipse happening,” Rohl said. “While there are many other cities within the path, Nashville is a very very enticing place for people to choose.”

He expects folks from as far away as Chicago might rise in the wee hours and make the trip to Nashville for the eclipse, noting that practically everyone in the U.S. is within a day’s drive of the path of totality. While it’s a tourist town, Rohl says many Music City hotels have been booked for a long time. He’s got a spare room in his house, but it’s still up in the air who gets it.

“I think a lot of people who live in Nashville might be having long-lost relatives coming out of the woodwork,” Rohl laughed.

There are a couple of other space and astronomy attractions in the region besides the eclipse and the Adventure Science Center. Rohl suggested a visit to the Dyer Observatory, operated by Vanderbilt University in Brentwood, Tennessee, just a bit south of Nashville; and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which is just a couple of hours drive to the south.

Total eclipse mania

Rohl noted that the buzz is certainly building about the eclipse. He fields several calls each day already, and expects it will only increase. Social media is helping to spread the word, something we didn’t have the last time a total solar eclipse crossed our entire country, back in 1918.

“The hype around this one really makes it so that everyone is expecting it to be the biggest astronomical event ever to happen in the United States,” Rohl said. “It’s something really exciting to look forward to, and of course Nashville is a mighty convenient place to live with that coming.”

Podcast of our interview with Derrick Rohl:

Trailer for the planetarium show Eclipse: The Sun Revealed:

Book review: Sun Moon Earth by Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren’s new book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) is a must read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the heavens, or in the total solar eclipse that will sweep across the United States on August 21, 2017. It’s far more than a where-to-go and how-to-see-it tale, although those pointers do show up at the end (don’t stare at the partially eclipsed Sun without proper, certified shielding, folks.) The fun part is the history lesson suggested by the subtitle.

Indeed, total solar eclipses have been happening for millennia, and Nordgren travels the world to examine what ancient cultures made of this unusual phenomenon. The complete blotting out of the Sun was seldom considered a good thing by people who didn’t understand what was really going on. It has only been in very recent times that the total solar eclipse has been embraced as a tourist attraction. Nordgren’s explanations of how scientific thinking developed and helped explain what was happening during eclipses are engaging and fascinating, as are his tales of the science that has only been possible during these rare events.

Nordgren has become an eclipse chaser himself, and I enjoyed his accounts of his travels to view eclipses, especially his trip to the relatively remote Faroe Islands, between Scotland, Iceland, and Norway, for the eclipse of March 20, 2015. The islands are not exactly the world’s leading tourism destination, and yet they were on that day because it was one of the few dry-land locations from which to see that particular eclipse. It was an interesting tale of the lengths to which people will go to get into the path of totality of a solar eclipse, and how the communities within that path prepare and react to the event.

Most people seem to agree that next year’s total solar eclipse will be seen by more people than any other in history. Often times the path of totality mostly passes over water, as it did for the Faroe Islands in 2015. The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the U.S. like this was in June of 1918. The 2017 eclipse will cross a huge land mass with a large population, many opportunities for tourists, and easy access to the path of totality all along the way.

Sun Moon Earth is a delightful read and would be a most welcome gift for anyone on your list with an interest in astronomy. We included it in our recent gift guide for astronomy buffs.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren

Author Nordgren is a renaissance man of sorts. He’s a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands. He’s also a photographer and an artist and has done a variety of beautiful travel posters for the eclipse as well as for other tourist spots around the solar system. They’re available on his website and also referenced in our gift guide. He’s done a great deal of work on night sky astronomy programs in National Parks. He’s the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks (Praxis, 2010) and spoke about the topic at the 2014 annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. He’ll be in town again to talk about Sun Moon Earth January 14 at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and are available online.


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