In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.
In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.

What We Learned So Far From The Total Solar Eclipse of 2017—And Why There's Much More to Come

In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.
In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Americans went mad for the total solar eclipse on August 21—and so did scientists. Earlier this month, researchers at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans teased out the first results of experiments performed during the eclipse.

"From a NASA perspective, there is no other single event that has informed so many scientific disciplines," Lika Guhathakurta, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, said. Among the affected fields include solar dynamics, heliophysics, Earth science, astrobiology, and planetary science. "The eclipse provided an unprecedented opportunity for cross-disciplinary studies."

To that end, NASA grants and centers supported Sun-Moon-Earth alignment research during the eclipse that involved balloons, ground measurements, telescopes, planes that chased the eclipse, and a dozen spacecraft from the agency, as well as from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the European Space Agency, and the Japanese Space Agency. In some regions, scientists meticulously mapped responses to the total eclipse by the land and the lower atmosphere. They measured ambient temperature, humidity, winds, and changes in carbon dioxide. These data were taken to find new insights into the celestial event, which occurs somewhere on the Earth every 18 months. (Calculate here how many you could potentially see in your lifetime.)


Of particular interest was how the eclipse affects the ionosphere, the barrier region between the atmosphere and what we think of as outer space; it is the altitude range where auroras occur, and where the International Space Station and low Earth orbit satellites are found. The ionosphere is affected by radiation from the Sun above and by weather systems below. The eclipse gave researchers the chance to study what happens to the ionosphere when solar radiation drops suddenly, as opposed to the gradual changes of the day-night cycle.

A total eclipse essentially creates a "hole" in the ionosphere. Greg Earle of Virginia Tech led a study on how radio waves would interact with the eclipse-altered ionosphere. Current models predicted that during the brief interval of the eclipse, the hole would cause waves to travel much farther and much faster than usual. The models, it turns out, are correct, and data collected during the eclipse supported their predictions. This facilitates a better understanding of what happens on non-eclipse days, and how variances in the ionosphere can affect signals used for navigation and communication.


"NASA's solar eclipse coverage was the agency's most watched and most followed event on social media to date," said Guhathakurta, with over 4 billion engagements. That sort of frenzied public interest for what amounted to a 90-minute celestial event over a thin strip of the United States, with around two minutes of totality for any given area, allowed scientists to engage "citizen scientists" to help with data collection.

Matt Penn of the National Solar Observatory led the Citizen CATE project (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse), which deployed 68 small, identical telescopes to amateur astronomers across the eclipse path. "At all times, at least one CATE telescope was in the shadow looking at the [Sun's] corona," Penn said. "And sometimes we had five telescopes looking at the corona simultaneously." This resulted in a lot of data. "We got 45,000 images, and to go along with that, we got 50,000 calibration images."

girl in eclipse glasses looks up at the sun
Jeff Curry/Getty Images for Mastercard

They're still working on the data processing, but by combining images similar to the way smartphone cameras create HDR images in certain lighting conditions, scientists are able to view the Sun's corona—the shimmering halo of plasma that surrounds it—in stunning new detail. Image-processing techniques on the high-resolution data yielded surprising results. Specifically: There are interactions between the "cold" atmosphere of the Sun—the chromosphere, which is "only" 10,000°F—and the hot corona, which is 1,000,000°F. "We're hoping to analyze these data in more detail and come up with some publications in the near future," Penn said. The project's telescopes remain in the hands of the public, and new experiments are underway.

"Most of our volunteers were going see the eclipse anyway, and what we did was try to enable them to elevate their experience by participating in research. And that goes from collecting the data to publication," Penn tells Mental Floss. "We could have had 200 sites easily with the amount of interest we had." The public's keen interest in the eclipse will spur experiments of commensurate ambition in 2024, when North America again experiences a total solar eclipse.


Penn's project wasn't the only science conducted with a public-engagement aspect. The Eclipse Ballooning Project, led by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University, enabled 55 teams of college and high school students to fly weather balloons to above 100,000 feet. There, they took measurements to see how the eclipse affects the weather-influencing lower atmosphere. The balloons also live-streamed the eclipse as it occurred across the continent. To give a sense of how long the project has been in development: When it was conceived, live-streaming as we experience it today had not yet been invented.

She tells Mental Floss that the project's success has spurred ideas for future large-team, long-term projects for the 2024 eclipse. "For me, the biggest lesson is, you have to have something that is really exciting and challenging in order to get students involved, and in order for the general public to be involved," she says.

Results from the Eclipse Ballooning Project are forthcoming, a common refrain by eclipse researchers. "We're really excited about taking this new type of data that no one has ever taken before, and now we are in the phase when we realize no one has ever tried to analyze data like this before," Penn says. "So we're inventing the analysis as well, and it's going to take time."

More results are sure to come in 2018.

In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."

In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.
This Just In
Yes, Parents Do Play Favorites—And Often Love Their Youngest Kid Best

If you have brothers or sisters, there was probably a point in your youth when you spent significant time bickering over—or at least privately obsessing over—whom Mom and Dad loved best. Was it the oldest sibling? The baby of the family? The seemingly forgotten middle kid?

As much as we'd like to believe that parents love all of their children equally, some parents do, apparently, love their youngest best, according to The Independent. A recent survey from the parenting website Mumsnet and its sister site, the grandparent-focused Gransnet, found that favoritism affects both parents and grandparents.

Out of 1185 parents and 1111 grandparents, 23 percent of parents and 42 percent of grandparents admitted to have a favorite out of their children or grandchildren. For parents, that tended to be the youngest—56 percent of those parents with a favorite said they preferred the baby of the family. Almost 40 percent of the grandparents with a favorite, meanwhile, preferred the oldest. Despite these numbers, half of the respondents thought having a favorite among their children and grandchildren is "awful," and the majority think it's damaging for that child's siblings.

Now, this isn't to say that youngest children experience blatant favoritism across all families. This wasn't a scientific study, and with only a few thousand users, the number of people with favorites is actually not as high as it might seem—23 percent is only around 272 parents, for instance. But other studies with a bit more scientific rigor have indicated that parents do usually have favorites among their children. In one study, 70 percent of fathers and 74 percent of mothers admitted to showing favoritism in their parenting. "Parents need to know that favoritism is normal," psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, who specializes in family dynamics, told The Wall Street Journal in 2017.

But youngest kids don't always feel the most loved. A 2005 study found that oldest children tended to feel like the preferred ones, and youngest children felt like their parents were biased toward their older siblings. Another study released in 2017 found that when youngest kids did feel like there was preferential treatment in their family, their relationships with their parents were more greatly affected than their older siblings, either for better (if they sensed they were the favorite) or for worse (if they sensed their siblings were). Feeling like the favorite or the lesser sibling didn't tend to affect older siblings' relationships with their parents.

However, the author of that study, Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen, noted in a press release at the time that whether or not favoritism affects children tends to depend on how that favoritism is shown. "When parents are more loving and they're more supportive and consistent with all of the kids, the favoritism tends to not matter as much," he said, advising that “you need to treat them fairly, but not equally.” Sadly for those who don't feel like the golden child, a different study in 2016 suggests that there's not much you can do about it—mothers, at least, rarely change which child they favor most, even over the course of a lifetime.

[h/t The Independent]


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