According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 215 million adults -- 88 percent of all Americans -- viewed the most recent solar eclipse either directly or electronically -- almost twice as many as those who watched the most recent Super Bowl game. Of the many eyes glued to the sky on August 21st, there was one particularly enthusiastic group: University of Michigan astronomy professors. Considered a once in a lifetime opportunity to view the eclipse in near totality, they journeyed to a variety of destinations including Nashville, Tennessee, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Jackson, Wyoming and Carbondale, Illinois. In addition to the powerful experiences they observed watching a total solar eclipse -- many for the first time -- they were buoyed by the mainstream enthusiasm for science that the eclipse helped to fuel.
A Peek at the Corona From a Motel Backyard
"I had seen pictures of it and read about it all my life and even though I had never seen a totality, I knew very well what to expect," said Chuck Cowley, an 83-year-old Emeritus Professor of Astronomy, who has been on the faculty since 1967. "Nevertheless, when the time came, all I could say was 'wow.'" Cowley and his two sons originally planned to head to Jefferson City, Missouri, which was almost directly in the path of totality. But after a weather forecast the night before predicted rain and clouds, they did an about face and drove 10 hours to Hopkinsville, Kentucky instead. They ended up viewing the eclipse from the backyard of the motel where they stayed along with just a dozen others, as all the other viewing sites were full. Cowley was able to get a perfect view of the white corona, which evaded him when he was in the path of totality in Maine in 1963 due to cloudy weather. "To actually see it was an incredible experience," he said.
Heading West to View the Eclipse at 6,000 Feet
Professor of Astronomy Sally Oey ventured further west, to Camp Davis near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is run by the University of Michigan's Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. Three years ago, when Oey was researching the eclipse, she determined that Camp Davis, at a 6,000 foot elevation, would be in the path of totality. The Earth and Environmental Sciences Department invited members of the Astronomy Department and Oey, along with her partner and a few other faculty, decided to go. Astronomy Lecturer Shannon Murphy and her husband, Joe Velez brought a Galileoscope, a simple plastic telescope. They set it up on a tripod and hooked an automotive oil funnel on the end of it to mount a parchment paper screen, which allowed them to see the entirety of the partial eclipse before and after totality. The small group had a big, clear field near where they were staying all to themselves. "We watched the moon's shadow starting to come across the face of the sun," said Oey. As totality approached, "we watched this wasp nest a few feet away. The wasps started going back in their hole to bed and they were all gone by the time of totality," she said. Their view of the solar eclipse couldn't have been better; it was easy to see the glowing solar corona and they could even see a small red bead corresponding to a solar flare. "You can only see something like that during totality," she said. "This was definitely fabulous." Oey hasn't yet made plans for the viewing of another eclipse. "I'm still just kind of relishing this one," she said.
Biking to the Path of Totality
Astronomy professor Mario Mateo began planning the eclipse viewing four years ago. He was aiming to bike to the path of totality in Kentucky, reuniting with three college friends he had viewed the eclipse with in North Dakota in 1979. But this time around, they all had other commitments. Instead, he decided to tackle a longer route, biking 725 miles to his eclipse destination in Cuba, Missouri over six days. "The bike trip was good on its own but getting to see the eclipse was a real bonus," he said. His wife and daughter met up with him in Cuba and ultimately headed to their friend's family farm in Drake, Missouri, which was located about three miles from the centerline of the eclipse path. It proved to be the perfect spot. Far from any road or town, it seemed like they were the only people in the world who knew about the eclipse, Mateo said. "It's this very primeval event. In the last few minutes before totality, the sun changes its character radically," he said. By the time totality arrived, the temperature had dropped by about twenty degrees and the sky became the dark blue of late twilight. "The eclipse was like going to another planet. You look up and there's this black hole in the sky with this bright ring around it. That's just not normal. Anybody who sees totality is moved by the experience." Mateo plans to go to Chile in July, 2019 and December, 2020 to see those two upcoming total solar eclipses. And, he's already getting his college buddies lined up to view the April, 2024 eclipse passing close to Ann Arbor.
A Birds Eye Journey to Totality
A chance meeting with a former post doc in July caused Tim McKay to rethink his plans to stay in Ann Arbor for the eclipse viewing. Instead, he flew in a four seat Cessna plane to Carbondale, Illinois with his 22-year-old son to watch the eclipse with hundreds of aviation enthusiasts. The pilot and post doc was Anne Greenberg, who initially started flying as a graduate student to relieve stress; she's now about to become a pilot for Delta Airlines. She convinced McKay, a professor of physics, astronomy and education, to accompany her. They flew down the day before the eclipse and camped on the grass next to the runway, joined by passengers of 40 to 50 other small planes. The next day, another 200 planes arrived. McKay said those running the airport set up tables and cooked food for everyone. "They knew a big thing was happening and they really went to town to be welcoming," he said. This was McKay's first total eclipse and it didn't disappoint. "The experience of seeing your entire horizon, what looks like the whole planet, suddenly change is what people mean when they use a word like 'awe,'" he said. Flying in a small plane through the clouds with his son, a recent University of Michigan graduate, made the experience even more special. Since Carbondale will again be a location for totality for the next eclipse, McKay may return there, along with his pilot friend. "If she's not flying for some airline, I may go back with her," he said.
A Totality Letdown
Not everyone had the ideal experience. Astronomy professor Monica Valluri had been planning her eclipse viewing for the past year-and-a-half. She was 15 when she viewed her first eclipse in her native India. "I came back from that and told my dad I wanted to become an astronomer," she said. She was facing time constraints, since her 16-year-old son was at a music camp and had a concert the day before the eclipse. The closest plane ride in the path of totality was Nashville, so they purchased airline tickets three months ahead. A few days before, the forecast predicted patchy clouds but not entirely overcast conditions, so they kept their plans. They scouted out a prime viewing space, Cornelia Fort Airpark, a large open World War II air field, where they were joined by a few hundred others. Three minutes before totality, the crescent of the sun was visible; it was getting dark and temperatures started to drop -- all signs that totality was near. At that moment, thick clouds appeared, entirely blocking the view. "The birds started roosting and flying back to the trees and crickets started chirping; the animals responded as they would to twilight," she said. But she and her son missed the experience entirely. "I haven't met a single other person from the department who traveled and got clouded out. It was just disappointing," she said. Further rubbing salt on the wound, when she and her son headed to get ice cream after the event, she discovered that many people who viewed it elsewhere in Nashville witnessed the totality.
Even so, as a scientist, she was pleased to see so much enthusiasm for an eclipse. The city was agog with people visiting to see the eclipse. Schools were closed for the day. Restaurants shut down just before the eclipse began and science museums hosted events. "It was really great to see how excited people were," Valluri said.
An Extended Family Viewing
Astronomy professor Michael Meyer was thrilled to learn that his 84-year-old mother's house in Washington, Missouri was directly in the path of totality. So he made a family affair out of the experience, taking his wife and two children, joining his two sisters and members of his family who also live there. They munched on astronomy-themed foods like eclipse cookies (chocolate on one side, vanilla on the other,) sun chips and moon pies. It had been hundreds of years since there was a total eclipse of the sun in Missouri, he said. "The kind of physical and mental experience of totality, that was really overwhelming for me. To be there with my three-year-old son, my seven-year-old daughter and my mom at an astronomical event of the century was really special."
Keeping It Local
Department chair Ted Bergin, predicting a decent view from Ann Arbor, planned an event on campus where faculty members and students would help answer science questions and "promote the joy of nature and science." Two-and-a-half months in advance, the department purchased 1,000 eclipse glasses. Word spread and by the time of the event, half of those were handed out, including 50 to the football team. Between 3,000 and 4,000 turned out between the steps of the graduate library to Rackham for the viewing. Bergin, wearing a Michigan Astronomy shirt, called it an "electric event." He was approached by people who asked questions like, "Why can't I look at the sun?" He was moved by the impact of the event on the spectators. He recalls one elderly woman in particular. She was sitting in the shade and lamented that the line was too long for glasses. He advised her to stay near the trees to see something spectacular. "I saw her later on with this huge smile on her face," he said. "I was proud of my department that we had enabled thousands of people to enjoy this signature moment of time, to look at the natural world and see its beauty and how it can do these amazing things." He believes it created excitement about the science of astronomy. Bergin isn't sure if he'll stay in town for the next eclipse, since the road to totality is nearby: in Toledo, Ohio. "We may just get in our cars and see totality. Everybody should do that because it will be so close."