August 10, 2017

U of R physicist says don’t miss August 21 eclipse

Tyler Nordgren speaks to multiple media outlets about what to expect 

University of Redlands physics and astronomy professor Tyler Nordgren has spoken recently to numerous media outlets including The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Forbes, and The Atlantic about the upcoming solar eclipse on August 21. His message is simple: don’t miss it.

For 93 minutes at midday on August 21, the shadow of the moon will sweep across the United States, spanning a narrow band from the coast of Oregon to South Carolina. People living within the “path of totality,” will experience a full eclipse, where the moon will completely cover the sun, leaving only a halo of light in the sky. Many others in the United States will be able to see a partial solar eclipse.

As Nordgren writes in his book Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses From Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books), which was featured recently in the The Wall Street Journal and Dallas News, he was a nine-year-old in Oregon in 1979 during the last total solar eclipse. Afraid of being blinded by the sun's rays, he stayed inside with the blinds drawn. "I have spent every one of those years wishing I'd turned around, gone to the window, parted the curtains, and simply looked up," he writes.

Nordgren does not want others to make the same mistake. With a passion for art as well as science, he has been working on a series of posters that were featured as part of an August 5 article on the eclipse in Newsweek. The striking posters are drawn in the style of the Works Progress Administration posters from the 1930s. The posters aim to educate the public by depicting people witnessing eclipses.

He has also teamed up with Bill Nye the Science Guy on a Planetary Society video popularizing information about the eclipse, and has appeared on TV segments on NBC, FOX, and the Weather Channel.

“I’ve spent my entire life looking at the sky as an astronomer—at the Milky Way, the stars, meteor showers —and this is the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen in my life with my own eyes,"  Nordgren, who witnessed the 1999 total solar eclipse in Europe, told the U.K.'s Guardian.

Even if the weather is cloudy or overcast during the eclipse, the astronomical event is worth observing, Nordgren told a writer for Forbes. It could get dark as night along the path of totality and the clouds might actually dissipate due to temperature reduction and other atmospheric changes. 

And in locations where the eclipse will be partial, not total—such as Southern California, home to Redlands and the Los Angeles Times—"if you begin to look around at shadows of trees or bushes on the ground, you'll see all sorts of glowing crescents on the ground at the maximum point of the eclipse.”

Broad enthusiasm for the eclipse does have a downside, though, as The Atlantic notes in a story about the pressure millions of eclipse chasers will put on local infrastructure; in another story, the publication notes the scams that have sprung up selling solar viewing goggles of questionable quality. Nordgren has been advising the National Park Service, “Imagine the biggest event you’ve ever had, and double it.” (Washington Post).

Nevertheless, Nordgren’s enthusiasm for the event he has been waiting 38 years for remains undaunted: “This will be the most photographed, most shared, most tweeted event in human history,” he says. 

“Under no circumstances should anyone think, ‘Eh, it’s not going to be a big deal,’” Nordgren emphasized to The New York Times. “If nothing else, every single person in the United States is going to be in part of the moon’s shadow that day.”

He added: “This is something everyone can take part in.”

Learn more about Tyler Nordgren or tune in to the NOVA special about the eclipse on the evening of August 21.