Brown physicists, planetary scientists, students share expertise, excitement for April 8 solar eclipse

Astronomers and enthusiasts across campus are gearing up for the big eclipse, with educational and viewing events at Brown and trips to prime watch spots in the path of totality.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Monday, April 8, the moon will step in front of the biggest spotlight in the sky, setting the stage for millions of onlookers to witness its grand moment in the sun and the spectacular darkness that comes with it.

It’s no wonder the solar eclipse has astronomers, planetary scientists and enthusiasts around the country buzzing as they gear up for trips to catch the celestial event, organize watch parties and educate a curious public about solar phenomena. Getting in on the fun are scientists and students from Brown’s Department of Physics and Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — and the excitement is pervasive, regardless of whether they’ve seen dozens of eclipses or this is their very first one.

“To be able to see with our own eyes celestial bodies passing in front of each other is very special,” said DEEPS associate professor Ingrid Daubar, who will be among dozens of Brown faculty, staff and students traveling to prime viewing locations along the path of totality — that’s eclipse talk for where the moon will completely obscure the sun and plunge the area into temporary darkness.

Another astronomer heading out of town is Robert Horton, manager of Brown’s astronomy labs and the Ladd Observatory, who will be in Rochester, New York. Like Daubar, who will head to Dallas, Horton looks forward to taking in the total solar eclipse with his family and anyone else who gathers with them.

“The collective sound of awestruck people is really something to experience,” Horton said. “People by their very nature enjoy sharing such experiences together.”

Scientists estimate that more than 40 million Americans will be along the path of totality and get to witness the cosmic motion to its fullest extent. The path encompasses 15 states and travels from Mexico’s Pacific coast to eastern Canada. The next eclipse to stretch from coast to coast won’t be until 2045, unlike the relatively short seven-year gap between the last total solar eclipse in 2017 and the coming one on April 8.

“This is basically it for a generation,” said Francine Jackson, staff astronomer at the Ladd. That’s why Jackson is booking it to San Antonio. “It's something you can't see often that is really quite steeped in history and science.”

Even for those who can’t travel, the full reach of the eclipse is another factor that makes this one so exciting, says Ian Dell’Antonio, a professor of physics. Almost everyone in North America will be able to catch at least a partial eclipse, including those in Rhode Island. Providence will see about 92% of the sun covered during the eclipse, which is set to start at about 2:15 p.m. and end at 4:39 p.m.

“If you can view the sun safely, it will be very spectacular,” Dell’Antonio said. “It will look like a very, very thin sliver, like a very thin crescent moon. It will still be daylight unlike in a total eclipse, but things will become a little fainter, colors will fade slightly and everything will look grayer. If it's a sunlit day, you will really notice it, but even if it’s uniformly cloudy, you’ll still notice something, as long as the clouds are not too thick.”

Brown students are also seizing the opportunity to witness the eclipse firsthand. About 50 students from Brown’s Astronomy Club and the Brown Outing Club will be in Rochester, New York, for the event. Aster Winkler is one. This will be the sophomore’s first time seeing a total solar eclipse.

“Solar eclipses as dramatic as this one show us the scale of the sun-moon-Earth system and remind us that we belong to a place that is much bigger than ourselves, our towns and cities — or our planet,” Winkler said. “Throughout human history, solar eclipses have served this role, invoking a sense of cosmic awe in observers, and so in observing this solar eclipse, we participate in a long-celebrated and very human tradition.”

Community members at Brown are putting together eclipse-related activities on campus and off. The NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium, which has been housed at Brown since 1991, is hosting a viewing event on the University’s College Green during the eclipse in tandem with the physics department, DEEPS and LunaSCOPE.

The group recently hosted about 45 students from Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence. They talked about what happens during an eclipse, discussed planetary exploration, showed students how to use a sunspotter telescope and passed out eclipse viewing glasses. The consortium is also arranging for Brown faculty to visit local K-12 schools to educate students about the science behind eclipses. 

Another educational component involves a walk-through exhibit inside a darkened enclosure in the lobby of Brown’s Barus and Holley building, which will be on display leading up to the eclipse. Organized by a team of students, faculty and staff from physics, the exhibit uses large physical models of the Earth, moon and sun to demonstrate how a solar eclipse works.

“When you're looking from outer space, you can see one shadow that is really dark that forms as the moon passes and then this light shadow ahead of it that just dissipates into nothingness," explained Regan Doherty, a first-year Brown student involved in the project. “This is something that we wanted to portray, because it’s something most of us probably won’t ever get to see.”

Doherty has no travel plans for the eclipse, but she does have hopes for the viewing experience near campus.

“This time around, I am definitely getting my hands on a pair of glasses,” she said. “That and just being surrounded by people and experiencing it all together.”