Monday August 21, 2017

What the 'once in a lifetime' total solar eclipse means for the scientific community

On August 21, millions of people will get to see one of nature's grandest spectacles and rare cosmic events — a total solar eclipse.

On August 21, millions of people will get to see one of nature's grandest spectacles and rare cosmic events — a total solar eclipse. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

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The college town of Carbondale in Southern Illinois is hosting tens of thousands of visiting sky gazers to witness the sun briefly disappearing from the daytime sky — a total solar eclipse.

Southern Illinois University is about seven miles from the point of greatest duration and physics specialist Bob Baer has played a central role in preparing for its moment under no sun.

The co-chair of the university's Solar Eclipse Steering Committee says everybody — locals and visitors alike — is getting ready for the rare cosmic event.

"We're seeing a lot of excitement. Our stadium for our eclipse event here on campus just sold out a few days ago at 14,000," he tells The Current's guest host Matt Galloway. 

Baer is involved in Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse), a science experiment that has a network of over 60 observation sites across the U.S. The purpose of the project is to capture images of the inner corona — the atmosphere of the sun which is only visible from Earth during a total solar eclipse.

Baer says he hopes to gather data from all of the sites to see the corona's evolution and learn from the findings.

"Some of the science that we'll get out of this, it will help with strengthening the reliability for our cell networks, our communications networks here on Earth," he explains.

People within the path of the total solar eclipse will not be the only ones affected by nature's grand spectacle. Animals that don't have an internal clock — species that depend on light or darkness to determine if it's day or night — will be "completely affected" by the eclipse. 

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Animals that don't have an internal clock — species that depend on light or darkness to determine if it's day or night — will be "completely affected" by the total solar eclipse. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

"They're basically tricked into thinking it's night. So a few minutes before totality, you're going to hear birds, some insects, some species of frogs that will start to get loud as if it's sundown," he says.

According to Baer, the dazzling astronomical display will be a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to engage tens of thousands of people on and off campus and encourage them to ask questions about the "universe and science and the solar system they live in."

'I don't care how many animations you've seen of this or computer simulations. In person, it takes your breath away.' - Bob Baer

As for witnessing the exact moment when the moon crosses between the sun and the Earth, he tells Galloway that it is a "life-changing" experience that fills onlookers with emotion and moves some to tears.

"I don't care how many animations you've seen of this or computer simulations," he says.

"In person, it takes your breath away."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Rachel Matlow.