Watching an Eclipse, by Jane-Emily

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Science With Friends

 

In late May 2012, I was very lucky; there was a solar eclipse right where I live!  We had a great time getting our friends to come and watch it with us, and preparation was the key to a good experience.  Most of us don’t think too hard about an eclipse until it is about to happen, and by then it might be too late to get good equipment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI knew something about a solar eclipse coming up, but it was only about six weeks beforehand that we really got serious. I got to attend a lecture on upcoming astronomical events (there were a bunch in 2012!) given by one of my all-time favorite college professors, Dr. Alexei Filippenko.* He gave us a lot of great information and stressed the importance of having correct viewing tools. We’ve all heard that welding glass is a good viewing medium, but it turns out that not just any welding glass will do; it should be #14 welder’s glass, which isn’t as easy to get. Happily he had bought up a large supply and shared them with us at cost, so I snapped up four or five. (I keep one in the car so I can look at the sun anytime I like!)

After this, we were very excited about watching the eclipse! We wanted to share the fun, so my husband put in a large order for eclipse sunglasses. These look like old-fashioned 3D glasses, but they have very dark plastic in them that is just as good as the welder’s glass.  We got 100 of them and invited everyone we knew to buy them from us (at cost, of course). At first we didn’t get a lot of takers and we worried that we would have a lot left over, but as the day approached, everyone wanted them and we worried that we would run out instead.

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On the big day, we gathered at a neighborhood park. We made sure everybody had proper eye protection, and we sat down for a picnic. An eclipse is a long event and it was a hot, sunny afternoon, so we went prepared for the heat. A couple of people brought a tent for shade, which was great and served as a lovely projection screen. Many families had blankets to put down in shade areas. I remembered at the last minute that I really dislike having the hot sun on my face (and I have a redhead prone to sunburn!), so I made several full-face screens with large pieces of cardboard. I just cut a rectangle shape out in the middle top area and fastened my welder’s glass down with packing tape, and ta-da! –I could watch the eclipse in shady comfort.

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This particular eclipse was an annular solar eclipse.  The moon went exactly in front of the sun (in our area; this, of course, depends on where you are), but because the moon was at its furthest point in orbit, it did not cover the sun’s disk completely. We saw a “ring of fire” around the dark disk of the moon. It was an amazing experience to be able to watch the whole thing happen. During the long period of time while we watched the moon eat away at the sun bit by bit, we played around with shadows and projecting images, used binoculars to project the crescent sun onto anything handy, and marveled at how the shade of the trees made for thousands of crescents. The peak of the eclipse lasted just a few minutes, and we could see the shape of the sun’s disk changing moment by moment. For most of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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Check out NASA’s Eclipse Web Site to see what eclipses are going to happen around the world in the next few years. Maybe you will be lucky enough to have one nearby!  Australians, take note: you will get to see part of a very unusual kind of eclipse next month! Americans have to wait until 2017 for the next full solar eclipse and may wish to plan to travel to see it. Wherever and whenever you get the opportunity to see a solar eclipse, remember that preparation will help you have a great time.

* I took astronomy from Dr. Filippenko when I was in college, and enjoyed it a lot, so much so that I’m planning on using his Teaching Courses materials for my own kids next year.

Featured photo : Thomas Bresson. From Wikimedia Commons.

Janejane-emilyEmily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

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