The United States is gearing up for its first total solar eclipse in nearly 40 years.
Millions are expected to flock to cities and towns in the path of totality this coming Monday, Aug. 21. Much of Indiana will experience 90 to 99 percent obscuration.
It isn’t just the public that’s excited for the eclipse. Scientists and researchers are given the rare opportunity to study aspects of the sun that we can’t normally observe.
This week on Noon Edition, our panelists discussed everything under the sun about this can’t-miss solar eclipse event.
The Science of Solar Eclipses
According to Pilachowski, there are two and a half solar eclipses per year. However, it is rare that one occurs over land for people to see.
This eclipse gives the scientists the opportunity to study the upper layers of the sun. Pilachowski says the sun’s surface is roughly 10,000 degrees.
“But if you go a hundred thousand miles above that, the temperature is above a million degrees,” Pilachowski said. The process by which energy gets deposited in the higher layers is not well understood. In this eclipse, we’ll be able to explore just that region where that energy transfer occurs.”
This is important to study because the behavior of the sun’s energy affects everything from our communication to our Earth’s magnetic field.
Solar Eclipse Safety
Teddie Phillipson is the Associate Director of the College Office of Science Outreach. She’s been hard at work preparing for IU’s CelestFest, an eclipse viewing event collaborating various departments on campus.
“It’s our opportunity to connect with the general population with science,” Phillipson said. “We’re always looking for that engaging activity to bring people in and not just science, but in our environment, everything that we do in the College of Arts and Sciences.”
One challenge for her is getting the word out about safe eclipse viewing.
The best way to view it is with special eclipse glasses. However, as Monday’s solar eclipse approaches, it has become increasingly hard to get ahold of these glasses. IU’s First Year Experiences will be handing out eclipse viewers across campus on Monday.
IU professor of astronomy Caty Pilachowski warns to never look directly at the sun without proper protection, even during the eclipse. Much of Indiana will experience a partial eclipse with a small crescent of sunlight peaking though.
“Even that thin sliver, when it’s imaged on the retina, damages the retina. So it becomes easier to look at the sun; our eyes don’t naturally from the sun as they normally do,” Pilachowski said. And that’s where the risk comes in, that people feel like it’s safe even when it isn’t.”
There are other alternatives to viewing the eclipse. Pilachowski recommends creating a pinhole eclipse viewer.
These can be made by simply poking a small hole in a paper plate and pointing it towards the sun. The sun shines through the hole to project an image of the eclipse on the ground. Look online and you can find other DIY eclipse projecting devices made out of cardboard boxes and tin foil.
Another way is to simply stand under a tree and look at the ground. Light peeking through the leaves can create a similar pinhole effect.
The History and Future of Solar Eclipses
Eclipses have occurred all throughout history. Sarah Reynolds is a PhD student at IU Bloomington and studies the history and philosophy of science.
“We know that people have been observing eclipses,” Reynolds said. “I think we have actual records back to nearly 5000 B.C. That’s a long time for people to be noticing these events and recording them.”
Cultures across the world have produced different mythologies to explain the eclipse. Many cultures have interpreted the sun to represent a god or a ruler. In Mesopotamia, an eclipse was thought to signify a change in power. In China, it was thought to be a dragon swallowing the sun.
“People see an event like this and they think “Why is this happening?” and there’s a strong tendency to try to connect it to something that’s going on also at that time,” Reynolds said.
Eclipses have also pushed civilizations to better understand the science around them.
“It’s had this long impact of shaping our desire to do science and try to better understand what’s going on up there,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s exciting to be a part of that in the present day.”
One effect of the eclipse that Reynolds is excited for is how the eclipse will influence younger generations of astronomers.
“Significant astronomical events have had a tendency to produce major astronomers down the road,” Reynolds said. “People remember their childhood experiences and seeing things like a total solar eclipse or a supernova.”
Teddie Phillipson-Cower: Associate Director of the College Office of Science Outreach, IU Bloomington
Catherine Pilachowski: Professor of Astronomy, IU Bloomington
Sarah Reynolds: PhD Student in the History and Philosophy of Science, IU Bloomington