2017 Eclipse Epilogue

Many of us have looked forward to this eclipse opportunity for years. I’ve been telling my students about it for a long time. I will now share my experiences during the 2017 eclipse while I am still in post-eclipse euphoria. I must say that, though I have been teaching about total solar eclipses for decades, it is a completely different thing to actually observe one.

I viewed the eclipse from the home of my colleague, Dr. Patterson. We were fortunate to have clear skies. Our day started with some gentle rain, but the clouds moved away about an hour before totality. By that time, many friends and colleagues had joined the party. I brought my solar binoculars to the party, but I let one of the girls use them. Rather than looking at the Sun while totality was approaching, I was observing the increasing darkness. In addition, I was double-checking the settings on my camera, hoping to get some decent photos. I automated as much as I could because I didn’t want to spend time messing with the camera during totality.

As totality approached, it started getting noticeably darker. Except for the short shadows, the surroundings began to appear a bit like they do during short winter days when the Sun is lower in the southern sky. During the last minutes before totality, when it started to resemble nighttime, I found it a bit disorienting. This was a truly strange environment. Though I knew exactly what was going on, I still wrestled with nervousness! I could now understand how this must have terrified people who didn’t understand what solar eclipses were about.

During totality, when it was safe for me to finally look up at the Sun, I was in awe! My nervousness was replaced by curiosity and excitement like I haven’t felt for a long time. Glancing near the horizon, it looked like sunset all around. Venus was clearly visible. The eclipse itself was breathtaking. I knew that no single image could truly capture the incredible sight that was above me.

I didn’t trust my timer, so I was nervously pushing a remote button on my camera, snapping photo after photo, stopping only when I had to wait for data to load onto the SD card. I did something called bracketing. I set my camera to cycle through different exposure times so that some photos would capture dimmer light from the Sun’s corona while other photos would capture the brighter features, such as solar prominences and the “diamond ring”. Below are some photos I took just before, during, and after totality.

At the end of 2-minutes and 10-seconds, the Sun started peeking out from behind the Moon. Someone yelled, “Diamond ring!” Totality was now over. It seemed like the fasted two minutes ever! Many at the party voiced that same opinion. My only regret was that my family was not there to experience it with me. Because of the weather forecast, my sons had made responsible decisions to go to school that day. My wife had to work, but at least she and her coworkers did get outside to see the partial eclipse.

Seeing a total solar eclipse was an experience that I will never forget. Going back into the classroom, I now have my original photos and, more importantly, personal experience to pass along to students. I will also emphasize that no amount of description or analysis takes the place of actually experiencing one. I will therefore be urging them to see at least one before they die. Now, we look forward to April 2024!

Solar Eclipse Take-away

Professor Patterson and I were interviewed this afternoon about the solar eclipse. We got the call and an hour later, we were doing the interview. We were coached a bit, but there was really no time to prepare my thoughts. My part went okay until I was asked about what I wanted my students to take away from the experience. I was immediately overwhelmed because there were so many things that could be said. I was trying to focus on what would be relevant to students on campus during the eclipse but was uncertain where to start and what to leave out. Nerves were also kicking into high gear. I knew I was representing the college and didn’t want to look like an idiot. In short, I froze! (Fortunately, we weren’t live.) I was asked if I wanted to come back to the question after Professor Patterson did his part, and I said I would. However, he did such a good job, I decided it wasn’t necessary. At this time, however, I would like to comment on a takeaway for students.

Take in the experience in as many ways as you can! The sky will look different. If you are in the path of totality, you will see stars and planets. You will see Mercury in a part of the sky where you will never ever normally see it. (You can take our astronomy classes to find out why.) On the ground, just before totality, you will see sharp shadows and even see what are called shadow bands, looking like the shadow of a stream of vapor moving across light surfaces. Features in the upper and lower solar atmosphere suddenly become visible.

Don’t just see it, feel it! Some claim that witnessing a total solar eclipse changed their lives. Notice the emotions that such a spectacle and change in your surroundings invokes. What do you hear? What animals can you now hear and what animals can you no longer hear? Imagine the fear that people may have experienced before anyone understood what solar eclipses were about.

After that, take a moment to reflect on how, through science, we have come to understand what eclipses are and how to predict them. Science, and the quest to understand awesome spectacles of nature, is a human activity. As such, they can involve a variety of emotions. Get excited about science! We do!

(As always, be safe! Unless the Sun is completely covered by the Moon, you need to wear solar glasses!)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education

It was an honor to be with distinguished colleagues on this discussion panel. We discussed the goals of higher-ed and the value of a liberal education. We followed up Yong Zhao’s TED Talk regarding education and also discussed parts of Fareed Zakaria’s book In Defense of a Liberal Education. I was a little nervous, due to the topic, but I enjoyed the experience.

Gravitational Waves Interview

John Rives interviews professor William Koch about Einstein’s theory of General Relativity and the recent observation of gravitational waves. The link to the interview is here. Also, please visit John’s World Synthesis site at http://www.worldsynthesis.com

Students Observe Sunspot AR 12192

I had students out for a solar observing session on 10/29. One of the objects we observed was the giant sunspot AR 12192. Shown below are a couple photos I took of this region using our H-alpha filter which lets in only a narrow band of light associated with the H-alpha line in the hydrogen emission spectrum (656.28-nm). This suppresses the blinding glare from the surface and allows us to see details not only on the surface but in the solar atmosphere.

This sunspot is about 10-times the diameter of Earth and is the largest seen in 20-years! It looks flat because rotates once every 25-days and the spot has rotated around and is about to disappear from sight. The prominence seen is likely the aftermath of a solar flare that erupted on the surface near the spot a few hours before. Six major X-class flares have come from this spot and have intermittently disrupted navigation and radio communication.

Sunspots occur when strong magnetic fields protruding from the surface disrupt the convective up-flow of hot gas toward the surface. This creates a region on the surface where the temperature is lower than the surrounding surface. The instruments used to observe the spots have to reduced the glaring light coming from the rest of the surface making the spots appear dark. In fact, most of the solar activities near the surface (prominences, flares, coronal mass ejections, etc.) are also believed to be magnetically driven. The other photo is of a large prominence seen in a different area.

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Fall 2014 Lunar Eclipse

Early in the morning of October 8th, JCCC students and I enjoyed a view of the lunar eclipse of the Moon from the Paul Tebbe Observatory. It was a Hunter’s Moon, though the media fell in love with the term Blood Moon. My understanding is that Blood Moon has religious origins and I personally had never heard the term prior to this event. While we were enjoying the eclipse, I spent some time pointing out some stars and constellations. We also observed Jupiter and the Orion Nebula through one of the 12-inch Meade telescopes. I managed to take a couple quick photos, holding the camera by hand, of the Moon during totality. I also snapped a photo of students at the event. I knew that the image would be very noisy and a bit blurry, but I also knew that this would give students anonymity while still capturing the essence of the event. Students said that they had a good time, and the occasional “Wow!” and “Ooooooh!” made getting up at 3am worthwhile to me. We watched the eclipse until it was well past totality and then everyone was ready to leave and either go get breakfast or go back to bed.

2014-10-08 05.36.08


Successful Spring 2014 Evening With the Stars

2014-04-05 22.09.15GEB 233 was packed when I began my talk on black holes.  I expected half the audience to leave in disgust after a few minutes into it, but they stuck around.  Could it have been that once I started, the walls and doors of the room themselves became like the event horizon of a black hole, trapping everyone in the interior of the room?  Were people attempting to come in from outside able to do so?  Or, were they met by firewalls, created by breaking the entanglement between particles just outside the doors, having an energetic and violent effect on the vacuum energy outside the doors?  There also is a remote chance that the audience found the confusion about black holes and the ideas being kicked around to resolve the confusion fascinating.  I am going to assume the latter.  Our understanding of black holes is causing some re-think of old and trusted principles of physics.  Thank you to all who attended.  I wish we could have provided time at the telescopes afterward, but the clouds spoiled that part.

Black Holes Slide Show

Lunar Eclipse 4/15/2014

As many of you know, there was a total lunar eclipse early this morning.  I managed to pry myself away from the sheets at about 2:30am and go out and take some photos.  The next three eclipses (coming at about 6-month intervals) should also be visible from the Kansas City area.

Moon 1
Light from the Sun reddens and refracts toward the Moon as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, giving the Moon that reddish-orange appearance.
Moon 2
Three red bodies are shown here: the Moon, the red giant star Spica (the bright star at the 4:30 position relative to the Moon) and Mars (shown in the upper right part of the image).