Eclipse was teachable moment for natural science faculty

29th August 2017

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Last Monday, students, faculty and staff gathered at McCullogh Plaza and elsewhere on campus to witness the solar eclipse.

It was unusual, thrilling, awe-inspiring, moving, weird and more.

For members of the School of Natural Sciences, the eclipse wasn’t just fun in the partial sun, but a great way to start another semester of teaching and learning.

The view from campus

Fanning out across campus, students of David Taylor, professor of biology, were observing the behavior of birds before and during the eclipse.

“The hypothesis is that we should hear more bird sounds because the birds will think we’re going into dusk, and they’ll start singing,” Taylor said.

In several days, the students will perform a comparative sampling and perform statistical tests to determine if in fact the number of sounds they gathered during the eclipse is different.

For his part, Phillip Asher, adjunct instructor of geosciences, helped many viewers—including a crew from WLKY and a reporter from The News and Tribune—understand what they were seeing.

“Probably the most important principle involved in eclipses is that the moon’s orbit is tilted about five degrees and eight minutes with reference to the earth-sun plane,” Asher said. “But there are two points in the orbit called nodes where the moon is in line with the earth-sun plane, and this is where eclipses can occur.”

A glimpse of bliss

Other faculty members were drawn beyond campus, to the point of totality itself.

Physics Professor Kyle Forinash rode a bus organized by the Louisville Science Center to Russelville, Ky., near the point of totality at Hopkinsville, Ky.

“I had never seen a total eclipse,” Forinash said. “It was much more impressive than a partial eclipse. Your eyes adjust to the slow darkening until, suddenly it is pitch black, like nighttime.”

He noted the cooling effect of the darkness, and saw stars beyond the corona of light.

According to Forinash, eclipses have been important in validating some of the theories that are most fundamental to our understanding of the universe, such as Newton’s laws, thermodynamics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

It was during the 1919 eclipse that Arthur Eddington went to Principé Island in the South Atlantic and measured the bending of light due to the gravity of the sun,” Forinash said. “Einstein had predicted about twice as much bending of a beam of light from a distant star passing the sun as Newton had. Einstein was correct, cementing the general theory of relativity as an important correction to Newton’s law of gravity.”

Forinash notes that scientists also first learned about many aspects of the gases surrounding the sun from eclipses.

“Normally the behavior of these gases cannot be directly observed because of the brightness of the sun,” Forinash said.

Subhranil De, associate professor of physics, also journeyed to Russellville.

Walking through neighborhoods transformed by the unusual light, he was moved to ponder the ability of this subtle adjustment to open a window onto dimensions outside our normal experience.

“The view of the radiant corona around the dark moon was a reminder of the infinite grandeur of unknown worlds and unseen images that decorate the cosmos, a brief glimpse of which sometimes, blissfully enough, finds its way into our own familiar home,” De said.

Science is cool!

Amid the scythe-shaped shadows on the pavement and the festive clusters of sky-gazing fellow students, Christian Martinez, a freshman from Charlestown, Ind. majoring in chemistry on the bio-chem track, was enjoying his first really decent eclipse.

Like Forinash, he noted the orange cast to the ambient light, the subtle cooling of the air.

“I’ve always been really interested in space, and I find the idea of the sun and moon aligning so well to be super interesting,” Martinez said.

Pam Connerly, associate professor of biology, admits to not being an astronomy expert. She and her family spent the afternoon in Auburn, Ind., taking in the eclipse with a diverse group of strangers. She marveled at the ability of this stellar event to bring people together through a connection with something bigger than themselves and their normal lives.

All around, whether they knew if or not, people were experiencing the moment through exercising the scientific method—making observations about the coolness and the dark, comparing their perceptions to objective temperature readings and information about the intensity of the light.

“I enjoyed seeing a variety of people get excited about this scientific event,” Connerly said. “It helps spread the message that science is cool!”

Homepage photo: The moment of eclipse reflects on the sunglasses of student Markos Miller. Photo courtesy of Markos Miller.

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