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The Scarlet & Black

NSO Week Eclipsed

Students view the 2017 solar eclipse outside the JRC. Nobody’s looking at the sun without their special eclipse glasses.
Students view the 2017 solar eclipse outside the JRC. Nobody’s looking at the sun without their special eclipse glasses.

The Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 swept across the continental United States last Monday, Aug. 21, and Grinnell’s position mere hours away from the path of totality meant that many Grinnellians witnessed the eclipse firsthand. From campus the eclipse could be viewed at an impressive 95 percent totality during peak time at 1:10 p.m., allowing many community members to observe the rare astronomical phenomenon by just stepping outside.

“It was a lot of fun seeing everyone get behind something like that,” said Sierra Silverwood ’18, who watched the solar event from just outside the Joe Rosenfield Center. “Every time the sun came out from the clouds everybody started cheering. When it was in the highest totality phase, of course that’s when all the clouds came. But we got pretty close.”

Cloud cover was a major concern for all Midwestern eclipse chasers on Monday. Cloudy conditions and thunderstorms rattled the atmosphere above Iowa and Missouri throughout much of the day, complicating many viewers’ plans to see the eclipse in full totality. One group of Grinnell physics students, led by Professors Barbara Breen and Charlotte Christensen, both physics, spent Monday in vans, searching for the perfect weather conditions to observe the moon’s transit across the sun in totality.

“Professor Charlotte Christensen and I took two large vans and 20 people on Monday. We ‘chased’ the eclipse, changing plans from St. Joseph to Columbia, MO on the run,” Breen wrote in an email to the S&B. “We ended up at a location that allowed us to see all the stages of the eclipse, including totality, even as some clouds scuttled through intermittently.”

Although the group’s trip to the eclipse turned into an all day adventure, one of the students on the trip, Nathaniel Zhu ’19, said that the chase was easily worth it.

“Totality was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in my life,” Zhu shared. “I’ve seen a lot of beautiful things, but totality was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. If people get another chance, they should actually go see totality.”

As many Americans learned on Monday, the difference between a near-total and total eclipse is fairly significant. According to NASA’s website, during a total eclipse the entire sky darkens, and the sun can be viewed with the naked eye while completely covered by the moon, and the corona, or outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, is visible. If the eclipse is less than total, the sky may darken only slightly and the sun should only be viewed through eclipse glasses, which still offer a rare view of the moon’s placement in front of the sun.

“I didn’t know there was such a big difference between 90 percent and full totality,” Silverwood said. “If I would have known that it completely changes, I would have [gone off campus]. I had some friends who saw some totality and it was a really neat experience.”

Breen and Christensen agreed that totality is a really neat experience, and found that the decision to bring a group of students to view the eclipse along the path of totality was a natural decision.

“I wanted to see it and Professor Breen wanted to see it. Why wouldn’t we take students?” Christensen said. “And I’m really glad we did. I think having students there and getting to experience with a crowd of other people who were also appreciating it, who were also seeing totality for the first time, made it all the more exciting.”

Besides being a beautiful event to witness, the total solar eclipse also had tremendous significance for the physics community. Many experiments can only be conducted during a total eclipse, such as observation of the sun’s corona or studies of how plants and animals respond to totality. Moreover, a solar eclipse provides a rare opportunity to witness physics in the real world.

“So much of what we study in physics, especially dynamics of our solar system or dynamics in general, seems very theoretical. We come up with these great theoretical models and know that they apply to nature, but when you see the eclipse, you actually see it happen,” Christensen said. “You can actually watch the moon go in front of the sun and realize that we’re all on these orbits. And that’s not an experience you get very often.”

Despite the practical application of the eclipse to the physics world, however, Christensen also said that the beauty of the eclipse alone makes a trip to view totality worth it.

“It just looks really cool,” she said. “That’s not to be discounted.”

For those who missed totality this year, the next total solar eclipse will be viewable from the continental United States in 2024. As the last total solar eclipse was viewable from a large portion of the United States nearly one hundred years ago, this is a lucky additional opportunity to witness the stunning astronomical phenomenon in one’s lifetime.

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