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.
NASA

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.)

PEERING THROUGH THE "HOLE" IN THE IONOSPHERE

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.

FINDING UNEXPECTED INTERACTIONS

"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.

ATTEMPTING TO ANALYZE DATA NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE

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.

More Than Half of Wild Coffee Species Could Go Extinct

iStock.com/Alfribeiro
iStock.com/Alfribeiro

Your morning cup of coffee is under threat. A study published today in Science Advances asserts that a majority of the world’s wild coffee species are at risk of extinction. The main two types we rely on for our caffeine fix—arabica and robusta beans—are both threatened by climate change and deforestation.

The team of UK-based researchers used Red List of Threatened Species criteria from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to classify the risks facing the world’s 124 known species of wild coffee. About 60 percent of them—or 75 different species—face possible extinction in the coming decades. This represents “one of the highest levels recorded for a plant group,” researchers write in their paper.

Partly to blame are the severe droughts associated with climate change, as well as deforestation. Other threats include the spread of fungal pathogens and coffee wilt disease in Central and South America and Africa, respectively, as well as social and economic factors for growers.

“Considering threats from human encroachment and deforestation, some [coffee species] could be extinct in 10 to 20 years, particularly with the added influence of climate change," lead author Aaron P. Davis, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, tells CNN.

Davis’s previous research stressed that arabica, which is already listed as an endangered species, could be extinct within 60 years. Most of the coffee plants we rely on are farmed, but wild coffee is no less important. Some wild species are resistant to disease and have other useful genes that could be introduced to commercial crops. That way, the cultivated varieties might endure the effects of climate change better and stick around a little longer.

Consumers aren’t the only ones concerned, either. Coffee farming is an industry that supports about 100 million workers around the world. One way of conserving the plants is to store their seeds and genes, but Hanna Neuschwander, the director of communications for the industry group World Coffee Research, tells Mashable that these seed banks aren’t well established yet. For now, the focus is on preserving the plants themselves.

12 Facts About the Sense of Taste

iStock/m-imagephotography
iStock/m-imagephotography

A lot more than your tongue is involved in the process of tasting food. Taste is not only one of the most pleasurable of the five senses, but a surprisingly complex sense that science is beginning to understand—and manipulate. Here are 12 fascinating facts about your ability to taste.

1. Everyone has a different number of taste buds.

We all have several thousand taste buds in our mouths, but the number varies from person to person. The average range is between 2000 and 10,000. And taste buds are not limited to your tongue; They can be found in the roof and walls of your mouth, throat, and esophagus. As you age, your taste buds become less sensitive, which experts believe may be why foods that you don’t like as a child become palatable to you as an adult.

2. You taste with your brain.

The moment you bite into a slice of pie, your mouth seems full of flavor. But most of that taste sensation is happening in your brain. More accurately, cranial nerves and taste bud receptors in your mouth send molecules of your food to olfactory nerve endings in the roof of your nose. The molecules bind to these nerve endings, which then signal the olfactory bulb to send smell messages directly to two important cranial nerves, the facial nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve, which communicate with a part of the brain known as the gustatory cortex.

As taste and nerve messages move further through the brain, they join up with smell messages to give the sensation of flavor, which feels as if it comes from the mouth.

3. You can’t taste well if you can’t smell.

When you smell something through your nostrils, the brain registers these sensations as coming from the nose, while smells perceived through the back of the throat activate parts of the brain associated with signals from the mouth. Since much of taste is odor traveling to olfactory receptors in your brain, it makes sense that you won’t taste much at all if you can’t smell. If you are unable to smell for reasons that include head colds, smoking cigarettes, side effects of medications, or a broken nose, olfactory receptors may either be too damaged, blocked, or inflamed to send their signals on up to your brain.

4. Eating sweet foods helps form a memory of a meal.

Eating sweet foods causes your brain to remember the meal, according to a 2015 study in the journal Hippocampus, and researchers believe it can actually help you control eating behavior. Neurons in the dorsal hippocampus, the part of the brain central to episodic memory, are activated when you eat sweets. Episodic memory is that kind that helps you recall what you experienced at a particular time and place. "We think that episodic memory can be used to control eating behavior," said study co-author Marise Parent, of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State. "We make decisions like 'I probably won't eat now. I had a big breakfast.' We make decisions based on our memory of what and when we ate."

5. Scientists can turn tastes on and off by manipulating brain cells.

Dedicated taste receptors in the brain have been found for each of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). In 2015, scientists outlined in the journal Nature how they were able to turn specific tastes on or off in mice, without introducing food, by stimulating and silencing neurons in the brains. For instance, when they stimulated neurons associated with “bitter,” mice made puckering expressions, and could still taste sweet, and vice versa.

6. You can tweak your taste buds.

Most of us have had the experience of drinking perfectly good orange juice after brushing our teeth, only to have it taste more like unsweetened lemon juice. Taste buds, it turns out, are sensitive enough that certain compounds in foods and medicines can alter our ability to perceive one of the five common tastes. The foaming agent sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate in most toothpaste seems to temporarily suppress sweetness receptors. This isn't so unusual. A compound called cynarin in artichokes temporarily blocks your sweet receptors. Then, when you drink water, the cynarin is washed away, making your sweet receptors “wake up” so the water tastes sweet. A compound called miraculin, found in the herb Gymnema sylvestre, toys with your sweet receptors in a similar way.

7. The smell of ham can make your food “taste” saltier.

There’s an entire industry that concocts the tastes of the food you buy at the grocery store. Working with phenomena known as phantom aromas or aroma-taste interactions, scientists found that people associate “ham” with salt. So simply adding a subtle ham-like scent or flavor to a food can make your brain perceive it as saltier than it actually is. The same concept applies to the scent of vanilla, which people perceive as sweet.

8. Your taste buds prefer savory when you fly.

A study by Cornell University food scientists found that loud, noisy environments, such as when you’re traveling on an airplane, compromise your sense of taste. The study found that people traveling on airplanes had suppressed sweet receptors and enhanced umami receptors. The German airline Lufthansa confirmed that on flights, passengers ordered nearly as much tomato juice as beer. The study opens the door to new questions about how taste is influenced by more than our own internal circuitry, including our interactions with our environments.

9. Picky eaters may be “supertasters.”

If you’re a picky eater, you may have a new excuse for your extreme dislike of eggplant or sensitivity to the slightest hint of onion. You might be a supertaster—one of 25 percent of people who have extra papillae in your tongue. That means you have a greater number of taste buds, and thus more specific taste receptors.

10. Some of your taste preferences are genetic.

While genetics may not fully explain your love of the KFC Double Down or lobster ice cream, there may be code written into your DNA that accounts for your preference for sweet foods or your aversion to certain flavors. The first discovery of a genetic underpinning to taste came in 1931, when chemist Arthur Fox was working with powdered PTC (phenylthiocarbamide), and some of the compound blew into the air. One colleague found it to have a bitter taste, while Fox did not perceive that. They conducted an experiment among friends and family and found wide variation in how (and whether) people perceived the flavor of the PTC to be bitter or tasteless. Geneticists later discovered that the perception of PTC flavor (similar to naturally occurring compounds) is based in a single gene, TAS2R38, that codes for a taste receptor on the tongue. In a 2005 study, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found that the version of this gene also predicted a child's preference for sweet foods.

11. Your genes influence whether you think cilantro tastes like soap.

There may be no flavor more hotly debated or deeply loathed than the herb cilantro (also known as coriander). Entire websites, like IHateCilantro.com, complain about its “soapy” or “perfumy” flavor, while those who like it simply think it gives a nice kick to their salsa. Researchers at the consumer genetics company 23andMe identified two common genetic variants linked to people's “soap” perceptions. A follow-up study in a separate subset of customers confirmed the associations. The most compelling variant can be found within a cluster of olfactory receptor genes, which influence our sense of smell. One of those genes, OR6A2, encodes a receptor that is highly sensitive to aldehyde chemicals, which cilantro contains.

12. Sugar cravings have a biological basis.

Your urge for more hot fudge may have little to do with a lack of self-control. Scientists think that our yearning for sweets is a biological preference that may have been designed to ensure our survival. The liking for sweet tastes in our ancient evolution may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods, such as breast milk and vitamin-rich fruits. Moreover, recent research suggests that we crave sweets for their pain-reducing properties.

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