MSU astronomer preps community for eclipse

Ashley Ann Sander hawks solar eclipse glasses on the side of the road to tourists approaching town for $10 a pair Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, near Clayton, Ga., a city in the path of totality in North Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Staff Writer

On Monday afternoon, skies will darken over Starkville as the moon’s shadow lines up perfectly between the sun and the earth causing a solar eclipse. 

In preparation for the eclipse, Mississippi State University Assistant Professor of Astrophysics Donna Pierce gave a public lecture on campus Sunday afternoon. 

The lecture was titled “Chasing Shadows: Understanding The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017,” and covered the basics of solar eclipses, historical contexts and safe viewing.
Pierce said many cultures either revered eclipses or were in fear of them prior to scientific understanding. 

“You will find various interpretations of what causes eclipses depicted in art and mythology from all around the world,” Pierce said. “While they vary a little from culture to culture, the common theme that you see is either an animal or a deity chasing or biting the sun.” 

Pierce said Monday’s eclipse was expected to be the single most documented natural event in human history. The Golden Triangle will not receive a total eclipse, but 89 percent of the sun will be blocked. The nearest major area to receive a total eclipse is Nashville. The path of the eclipse follows a diagonal line across the country starting in Oregon and ending in South Carolina. A total eclipse will occur in the Golden Triangle on Aug, 12, 2045, and one occurred prior on Nov. 30, 1834. Monday’s eclipse is the first eclipse traversing only the U.S. since 1918. 

“Eclipses started becoming reliably predictable in the first century, but now we can not only predict when and where they will be, we can predict exactly what folks in different parts of the special zone where eclipses are visible, we’ll see and predict that down to the minute,” Pierce said. 

An eclipse viewing event will be held on the drill field Monday, weather permitting. The event will start at noon and run until 3 p.m.  Pierce and Assistant Professor of Astrophysics Angelle Tanner will be on hand with 1,000 pairs of eclipse glasses, pinhole viewers, a solar telescope and other equipment to safely view the eclipse. In the event of inclement weather, the viewing will be moved to Room 1030 in the Old Main Academic Center, where a live feed of the eclipse will be projected.

Pierce explained the importance of eye safety for viewing the eclipse, saying only eclipse glasses, pinhole viewers, welding glasses rated number 12 or higher and solar telescopes were appropriate for viewing the eclipse.  Proper eclipse glasses should block out all fluorescent light with only the sun, Edison type light bulbs and cell phone flashlights showing through. 

“Never stare at the sun with your bare eyes, with or without glasses,” Pierce said. “Do not do it. You can damage your eyes. In some cases the damage can be permanent.” 
She said sunglasses were also not sufficient to view the eclipse. 

Pierce also discussed discoveries made during eclipses, including the discovery of helium in 1868 in the sun’s rays and the discovery of a comet near the sun in 1948. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn may also be visible depending on light conditions. 

“Among some of the things that will be done tomorrow, there are going to be studies to better pin down the sun’s size, it’s actually a little bit unknown,” Pierce said. 
The error bar currently is about 100 kilometers. There will be extensive studies done of the sun’s atmosphere. Likewise, there will also be studies of environmental behavior of animals, and given the public interest in this eclipse, there’s also been extensive social studies done on human behavior during this eclipse.”

The start of the eclipse in Starkville will be 11:56 a.m., with maximum being reached at 1:27 p.m.The partial eclipse will end at 2:54 p.m.