Hundreds flock to College Green at Brown to wonder at partial solar eclipse

With Brown students and scientists as their hosts, enthusiasts from across campus and the local area convened for an eclipse viewing event on Monday, April 8.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a mostly clear and sunny day, the only significant cloud in the sky turned out to be the moon, as hundreds gathered on Brown University’s College Green to view the partial solar eclipse. The eagerly anticipated celestial event filled a diverse crowd of students, faculty, staff and local community members with awe as they observed one of the natural wonders of the universe.

“I've never seen anything like that,” said first-year student Emily Lopes, who took a break from studying for a spring midterm to take in the unique spectacle. “I loved it.”

The April 8 viewing on the green featured scientists and students who stood ready to guide attendees through the experience, setting up specialized telescopes and handing out eclipse glasses to those who wanted a glimpse of the moon streaking across the sun. The event was organized by the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium, which has been housed at the University since 1991, along with Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and LunaSCOPE project team.

“Looking out on the green with all the people out here, this is just a great opportunity to bring people together from all over the place,” said Ralph Milliken, a planetary scientist at Brown and program director for the consortium. “It’s getting people together in the same physical place at the same moment in time to connect and interact with one another over something that we can witness together that's all about being on our planet Earth and where we are in the solar system.”

The event started at about 2 p.m., just before the moon covered the edge of the sun. By 3:30 p.m. — when Providence was under the maximum point of the eclipse with about 92% of the sun covered — the College Green was brimming with energy as a small but noticeable shadow was cast over the city.

Throughout the event, spectators exchanged stories and shared observations as the air temperature got colder and the colors, shades and hues of a bright spring day shifted with each passing minute. A collective cheer and applause went out from the many hundreds of spectators at the maximum point.

"This is like the craziest thing ever," remarked one student as she navigated through the labyrinth of blankets and bodies laid out on the green while also trying to look up.The spirit of revelry was unmistakable as students and others played music, tossed or kicked footballs, and took eclipse selfies with one another.

Indeed, for many, the eclipse served as a reminder that they are part of a larger community of people.

“It’s a once in a decade, once in a score event,” said Brown junior Michael Oberlin. “It's not going to happen for another 20 years, so we’re all pretty excited to have a huge community around this to enjoy it with.”

For others, the eclipse was about the awe-inspiring beauty of the cosmos and the importance of appreciating its beauty. As Ph.D. candidate Anthony Englert put it: “We happen to be at a nice point in history where we can actually observe, because in a couple of centuries, it won't actually be possible [because of how the moon, Earth and sun are aligned] … It’s also just humbling.”

Englert was there with a group of students from Brown’s Department of Physics who set up specialized telescopes to be able to see the eclipse up close, causing a number of people to flock to their station and drop their jaws as they gazed through the lenses.

Scenes like this were playing out simultaneously across the contiguous Unites States. Scientists estimated that more than 40 million Americans would be along the path of totality and would get to witness the cosmic motion to its fullest extent. Many thousands were also expected to travel to the 15 states in the path of totality. Droves of students, staff and faculty from Brown, for instance, flocked to states like Texas and New York to witness totality. The last eclipse to stretch from coast to coast in the U.S. was in 2017. The next one isn’t until 2045.

At Brown, the viewing capped a series of educational opportunities on solar phenomena. In March, the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium hosted about 45 students from Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence to talk about eclipses. The Department of Physics hosted a seminar on the wonder and enigma of eclipses, and a group of mostly first-year students from the department created a walk-through exhibit simulating an eclipse inside a darkened enclosure in the lobby of Brown’s Barus and Holley building.

Some people on the green trekked to the building to check out the exhibit — which features large physical models of the Earth, moon and sun to demonstrate how a solar eclipse works — before heading back to the crowd to take in the celestial experience. Others planned to go afterwards, preferring to just stay in the moment.

“[Eclipses] are something that I think we’ll never fully understand,” said Irene Eguez, who was on vacation in Providence visiting from Bolivia with her sister when they heard about the viewing event at Brown. “We thought, we can’t miss this at all.”