WBOI’s Zach Bernard spoke with Science Central executive director and Weekly Experiment host Martin Fisher about the science and safety of an eclipse, as well as why we’re so excited about the event.
Eclipses happen all the time, but Monday’s is unique because it’s the first total solar eclipse that can be viewed from the entire United States since July, 1991.
“We don’t get to see most of them; most of planet earth is covered by oceans,” said Fisher. “So that means if there’s a solar eclipse, most of them are over the oceans somewhere, and unless you’re on a cruise ship that’s specifically going out there, most of us don’t get to see it.”
A solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the earth and the sun. Sunlight comes toward Earth, but as that disc of the moon is moving across in front of the disc of the sun, it’s going to block some sunlight. That creates a cone shape, and the narrow tip of the cone is what stretches across the United States.
The eclipse will be viewable anywhere in the country, but some places will have a better view than others. Fisher says a stretch beginning in Oregon, crossing through the center of the United States and exiting out of South Carolina is known as the “path of totality.”
“As you move further north from that totality or further south, instead of having 100 percent blockage, it’ll be less. 90 percent, 70 percent, 40 percent, and so on,” he said. “But most of the US will be seeing more than 60 percent or 70 percent blockage of the sun.”
Northeast Indiana is not in the path of totality, but residents should still get a great view: those in the more northern part of the region will be seeing 85 percent blockage of the sun while more southern residents will see 86 percent.
A solar eclipse is an exciting astronomical phenomenon, due to the brief impact of its path and rarity of its occurrence. As such, it becomes an “event” Americans will even travel to experience for the best view on the path of totality.
Whether in Northeast Indiana or the path of totality, Fisher urges eclipse viewers not to look up at the sky unless they have safety glasses or solar lenses. These are made of a plastic material specialized to block out the damaging light that comes from the sun.
“As the moon passes in front of and blocks out the sun, it’s going to be darker. And you might be able to look at the sun… but you don’t want to,” he advised. “Even though it’s not going to be as bright, you’re still getting damage that can occur to your eye even during an eclipse.”
Fisher says an influx of “fake” solar glasses made to look authentic have made the rounds from various parts of the world, and he urges purchasing glasses from a reputable place.
“It’s the equivalent of switch watches that are fake, I suppose,” he said. “You want to see ‘ISO 12312-2’ on the viewers. And if it’s even a recent batch, it’ll say ‘2015’ right after that. But those are the only things you’ll be able to look through safely.”
For more on eclipse viewing safety, you can listen to a conversation between Ailsa Chang, David Greene and Joe Palca on Morning Edition Monday.
A solar eclipse is something everyone -- even those who aren’t interested in science -- is able to participate in and enjoy, and also provides an opportunity for communities around the country to learn more about basic astronomical science.
Fisher says he hopes the excitement of Monday’s event will help inspire some individuals around the country to learn more about science, even after the eclipse.
“Maybe it’s astronomy, but maybe it’s biology or geology or oceanography," he said. "So that’s something that excites me as a science educator is that, people can carry it onto other things throughout the year.”
It won’t be as long of a gap between total solar eclipses in the United States after today; the next one is expected to take place on April 8, 2024.
“People are going to remember in 2024, ‘Wow, do you remember that cool thing that happened in 2017? Well let’s get our glasses -- early, weeks or even months early -- let’s book our hotel rooms -- early, so we’re able to experience the path of totality.’”
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, what could we expect from the next total solar eclipse in six and a half years from now?
“We’re going to be in a great location here. It’s going to start in Mexico, arch up northward through the Midwest -- including Indiana, we’re in a prime location -- and then it’s going to spin off northeast through New England before it exits through the ocean.”
But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there; Monday’s eclipse is set to begin around 2:25 in Northeast Indiana, and Fisher hopes it’s a fulfilling experience for all.
“Whether you’re with your family, friends or neighbors, go outside, have fun, bring some sandwiches, make sure you’re wearing safety equipment as you’re looking up at the sun and hopefully you’ll have a great view of a nice eclipse,” he said.