Perspectives on the Sun

UNC Asheville offers a rare look at this once-in-a-lifetime event: The Great American Eclipse.

The first day of classes on campus is usually a straightforward affair.

Classroom icebreakers.

Grading expectations.

New books.

But as UNC Asheville faculty and students follow the start-of-the-semester rituals and gather to begin their classes on August 21, there will be one uncommon occurrence: THE GREAT AMERICAN ECLIPSE.

Because of a rare confluence of the coordinates of sun, moon, and earth, for two minutes in the afternoon, a nearly 99% complete solar eclipse will cast a shadow across the campus. The Great American Eclipse, as it’s known, will be the first of its kind since 1776. And UNC Asheville is planning to take full advantage.

Professor of Religious Studies Rodger Payne fondly recalls watching a total eclipse in the early 1960s when his family drove from Charlotte to Florence, South Carolina. “It was a really awesome experience. I remember it well and I’m excited about the opportunity to see one again,” says Payne, who is taking part in making the stellar phenomenon a shared experience for the entire campus. He’s hoping the excitement of the rare celestial event isn’t just celebrated by campus astronomers and scientists and that students will seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be so close to the total eclipse.

Indeed, Payne and other faculty are making plans to stretch the encounter into a semester of scholarship that will examine the rare event not only through the lens of science, but a range of other perspectives, including meteorology, archaeoastronomy, math, literature, and Payne’s field: religion.

“Some of the more famous and influential astronomers were encouraged by their religion. It helped them conceive their place in the cosmos,” remarks Payne. “This is really a terrific opportunity to encourage our students to not just think about something from a single perspective; it’s a chance for students to be inspired by the many ways humans have attempted to make sense of what’s going on around us.”

Using the sun as a theme is a wonderful interdisciplinary topic. We’ll look at the science of the sun, solar energy, the sun in culture and history, and of course, talk about the eclipse.” - Physics Lecturer Judy Beck

It’s an apt lesson, he believes, to prepare students to engage with a complex, diverse, and changing world, and the eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime teaching opportunity, particularly fitting—he believes—for a liberal arts university.

For his part, Payne isn’t committed yet to watching the eclipse from campus. The narrow corridor where the moon’s shadow passes across the Earth and the total eclipse can be viewed is just seventy miles wide and Asheville is just beyond its complete shadow, known as the path of totality.

Still, to be so close is a rare event and why so many among the campus community can hardly contain their excitement. Brian Hart, the Physics Department assistant and the manager of Lookout Observatory, says that the cosmic arrangement of a solar eclipse is uncomplicated. “The moon goes between the sun and the earth at just the right time and at just the right angle. When that happens, the moon’s shadow is cast on the surface of the earth,” explains Hart, who adds that a solar eclipse is a bit like covering a large distant object with the tip of your outstretched thumb.

But here’s the rub: the moment the black sphere of the moon shadow blocks the light of the sun is pure chance.

Hart explains that the moon is roughly 400 times smaller than the sun and the sun is 400 times more distant than the moon from the earth. “If the moon were any smaller or the sun any closer, this wouldn’t work,” he says.

A total solar eclipse occurs only about once every year and a half on planet earth. With those odds, a total solar eclipse happens in the same geographic location on average just every 375 years. The last total solar eclipse cast in the continental U.S. was in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest.

The path of totality on August 21 will be the first to exclusively cross the continental U.S. from coast to coast since the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

“Since the country was born we haven’t had one that’s just ours, so consequently, a lot of people are calling it the Great American Eclipse,” says Hart. According to the NASA eclipse website, the earth, moon, and sun will align over the Pacific Ocean and track across the U.S. from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina shadowing Asheville at 1:08 p.m. and peaking at 2:37 p.m.

UNC Asheville astrophysicist Brian Dennison has seen two total eclipses in his lifetime—one in Germany in 1999 and the other in 1970 in Currituck in eastern North Carolina when he and six other classmates drove through the night in a Dodge sedan from Louisville, Kentucky.

Dennison remembers it as an experience like no other. “To see the sky darken so quickly and to look at the corona of the sun is something you never forget,” he says. “What makes an eclipse so extraordinary is that when the moon blocks the sun, you can observe the corona—the sun’s outermost layer—a boon for solar scientists and eye candy for the casual observer.”

Not only was the vision etched in his mind, but on film too. One of his classmates captured several photos of the eclipse, images that he and colleagues still use in student labs to explain the light from the sun. In one image, the rarely seen chromosphere is visible, a red layer of light from the sun whose color is only on view during a solar eclipse.

While solar eclipses aren’t within his field of expertise, Dennison points out that an eclipse is a gateway to a range of other subjects, and not all of them in scientific fields. In fact, among the astronomy courses offered in the fall, at least one won’t entirely be taught by astronomers.

Modern Languages and Literatures Assistant Professor Juan Guillermo Sánchez Martinez and Assistant Professor of Physics Britt Lundgren will co-teach ASTR 301, Indigenous Perspectives on the Sky. Lundgren and Sánchez Martinez met during new faculty orientation last fall and realized they had a mutual interest in how native and ancient cultures observed the night sky.

Sánchez Martinez is a scholar of Latin-American literature and is interested in how indigenous cultures conceive the cosmos and their place in it. Sánchez Martinez concedes that while culture and science may not seem to have much in common, he’s hoping the course helps bridge the gap by exposing students to the different ways native people relate to science, time, space, and language.

“We want to invite students to see the sky in a different way,” says Sánchez Martinez. “Western science takes a logic-centric perspective, but there are other perspectives.”

Lundgren, who is an astronomer and expert on how galaxies evolve, says that people in her field spend more time crunching numbers on a computer than actually looking at stars. Which is why an important element of the course will include observing with the naked eye so students can connect with the night sky.

She points out that eclipses give scientists a rare opportunity to see things close to the sun that would otherwise be unobservable from Earth and have led to important discoveries, including confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. For their class, Lundgren and Sánchez Martinez are hoping their students will become more thoughtful about the universe and develop a better understanding of their place in the world.

“We’re increasingly disconnected from the night sky in a way that our ancestors weren’t,” says Lundgren. After all, she says, connecting with the night sky or watching an eclipse is an experience that can’t be replicated in a classroom.

While their class is geared for upper-class students, Physics Lecturer Judy Beck is teaching a first-year seminar that’s centered on the sun.

“Using the sun as a theme is a wonderful interdisciplinary topic. We’ll look at the science of the sun, solar energy, the sun in culture and history, and of course, talk about the eclipse,” says Beck. “What a great way to start your college career by seeing a solar eclipse with your new classmates.”

And like many of her colleagues, Beck believes that a multifaceted approach to a single topic is the best preparation for lifelong learning and preparing students for thoughtful careers. “What we need to do is prepare people to process information, be critical thinkers, and to adapt to what’s happening in the world around us,” Beck says.

And while a solar eclipse lasts mere minutes, humans have reacted to eclipses in wildly different ways that can resonate for lifetimes. Lorena Russell, who teaches fiction, will include in her “Readings in Gender and Sexuality” class a journal entry and essay written by Virginia Woolf in 1928 after watching a solar eclipse in the north of England.

“What I find interesting is the intensity of Woolf’s experience watching the eclipse. It’s an interesting astronomical phenomenon, but for her it was a profound social experience and symbolic of life being rejuvenated,” explains Russell.

Creating a powerful shared moment and sense of community on campus is one of the reasons the university is investing time and energy to celebrate the brief, but potentially weighty impact on students and staff.

People just like to look up into the sky,” says Hart. “For me, it’s the mystery. It’s so big and vast. It’s more than you can comprehend. To experience one small part makes me feel like I’m part of something remarkable.”

While eclipses in centuries past were typically a surprise to unsuspecting earthlings, this one will be in the spotlight. Hart points out that it will be the first total eclipse in the U.S. since the invention of social media and will not likely come as a surprise to anyone with a smartphone.

Among the information he’s hoping to convey by any means is to never look at an eclipse with the naked eye and to purchase a pair of specially filtered glasses. Even when only 1 percent of the sun is visible, as it will be during the maximum eclipse at UNC Asheville, the sun is still 10,000 times brighter than the full moon and can result in permanent eye damage, said Hart, which is why there will be enough glasses available for the entire UNC Asheville community.

If you are in Asheville, outside of the path of totality, you will see a 99% partial eclipse, but experts say that there’s a pretty big difference between a full and nearly full eclipse. The distinction is that the corona won’t be present—drowned by the rays of sunlight that isn’t covered by the moon.

So if you’re looking for members of the astronomy and physics faculty, they may be hard to find on campus August 21. They may be headed to the path of totality and locations where the skies are more likely to be clear. Lundgren says the probability of a clear sky improves the farther away you go from the mountains, but the weather at this point is anyone’s best guess. However, even if the skies are cloudy, it will still get darker, but the view of the eclipse will not be as dramatic, since it won’t include the direct view of the solar corona.

“Everyone is guarding their secrets about where they plan to go,” laughs Lundgren, who hasn’t committed to a viewing location yet. “It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve. Everyone is waiting for a better invitation.”

Physics Department Chair Charles Bennett is planning to be on campus helping ready the Quad for students to view the eclipse safely by setting up a sun funnel, a telescope, and providing protective glasses.

August 21, 2017
The campus community is invited to gather on the Quad from 1-3 p.m. for special solar eclipse activities, festivities, and refreshments.
Learn more at lookoutobservatory.unca.edu.
CAUTION: It is NEVER safe to look at the sun without protection anytime when any of its bright disk is visible.

“There is something about looking up at the sky that fascinates, whether you’re an astronomer or not or whether you care about the science. People just like to look up into the sky,” says Hart. “For me, it’s the mystery. It’s so big and vast. It’s more than you can comprehend. To experience one small part makes me feel like I’m part of something remarkable.”

And if you miss this one, says Hart, you may just have to wait a lifetime. The next partial eclipse scheduled for Asheville is 2024. But the next total eclipse? 2153.