'Umbraphile' coming to suburbs to share joys of this summer's eclipse
I've been chasing eclipses since I was 8 years old, starting with a near-total eclipse in my hometown of Port Chester, New York, in 1970.
I was hooked by the eerie light put off by the 96 percent coverage; since then, I've tried to see every eclipse I could. But that day when the moon's shadow all but covered my house, it also sparked my interest in science and even a desire to teach.
Three years later, I talked my mother into taking me to a planetarium to see the live feed from an eclipse over Africa. I just missed a chance to see my first total eclipse in the Northwest U.S. as a high school senior, but in 1991 my dream came true on a family trip to Mazatlán, Mexico. There, I was absorbed by the moon's umbra for 6 minutes and 52 seconds -- an eternity for total eclipse durations. Eclipse trips followed to Salzburg, Austria; Shanghai, China; and Patagonia, Argentina.
But this summer, I'll be in downstate Carbondale, where I'll undoubtedly be joined by many other "umbraphiles" from around the world at Southern Illinois University. There, a total eclipse occurs on Aug. 21. As a teacher and someone who has studied eclipses extensively, I've been traveling across the nation promoting "eclipse educational awareness" to school districts, colleges and other scientific organizations. My hope is no one who has an opportunity to see totality will miss it due to misinformation or fear of observing nature's most spectacular celestial event.
I'll be at Naperville North High School on Thursday to guest-teach students in the afternoon. Then I'll conduct an outdoor solar observing session, capped off that evening by a discussion in the student lounge. The Naperville Astronomy Association is scheduled to bring along a few telescopes to view the sun that day as well.
I chose Naperville North for the presentation after discovering how motivated and enthusiastic their science team is. I did a brief lesson with their afternoon astronomy class last year. It was amazing, and all of us realized what a great fit it would be if I returned to present to not only students from the district, but the community as well.
It's my hope that anyone who attends the presentation will realize it's worth the effort to travel to Southern Illinois to witness the most awesome sight they'll ever see -- the moon completely covering the sun for more than two minutes, and all the dramatic phenomena that go along with it.
Imagine seeing a huge dark shadow rushing at you well in excess of the speed of sound, and seeing stars suddenly appear in the daytime sky. But what really blows people away is the sight of the sun's corona coming into view as the last of its light is swept over by the pitch-black lunar disc. These are simply sights that you can't see anywhere else on Earth. I've traveled to four continents to see these things; it would be a shame if people wouldn't travel a few hours to see it for themselves.
Seeing the eclipse from the Chicago suburbs is, of course, an option for those who can't get to totality; here, you'll see an eclipse of about 90 percent. That's a good test score, but it's a bad eclipse score. If you're not completely within the moon's umbra, you'll miss the best part of the show.
I'm encouraging parents to take their students to the Carbondale area for what SIU is billing as a fantastic "Eclipse Weekend."
So what if you miss a day of school at the beginning of the year? No classroom lesson could compare to seeing a total solar eclipse live, and I hope teachers and parents will understand that. At a minimum, I encourage all teachers in every school in the U.S. to get their students outside on Aug 21 to watch this rare and special event.
My mantra for it is: "No Child Left Inside."