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.

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).

Evening With the Stars, Spring 2014

The Johnson County Community College
Astronomy Department Presents our Spring 2014

Evening with the Stars!

“The Black Hole Conundrum”


This spring, JCCC’s Professor William Koch presents some of the latest thinking about black holes.  These theoretical testing grounds are forcing physicists to rethink some of our most fundamental principles of physics, principles that form the very foundation of our understanding of the universe.

After the talk, and weather permitting, several telescopes will be set up to observe the night sky at the Paul Tebbe Observatory, on the roof of CLB. Some objects of note that will be viewable are:

  • The Orion Nebula
  • The Beehive Cluster
  • Jupiter
  • The Moon

WHEN: April 5, 2014, at 8:00pm

WHERE: The Craig Auditorium, GEB 233

For more information, contact either Doug Patterson,, at (913) 469-8500 x4268, or William Koch,, at (913) 469-8500.

Black Hole Conundrum slides