How Scientists Are Preparing for the First-Ever 'All-American' Eclipse

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Preparations have already begun for what scientists are calling the Great American Eclipse of 2017. For the first time in American history, on August 21, 2017 the "path of totality" of a solar eclipse—that is, the path along which the Moon's shadow transits—will run exclusively and entirely across U.S. soil in a 70-mile-wide line running from Oregon to South Carolina. Astronomers see it as an opportunity for new scientific observations and public engagement.

The last coast-to-coast solar eclipse over North America occurred in 1918. It followed a similar path as the 2017 eclipse, but because its path also brought it over Bermuda—then part of the British Empire, now a British territory—the United States couldn't claim exclusivity. The 2017 eclipse won't pass over Bermuda or any other territory. It is truly "all American."

"The is the science Super Bowl," said physicist Angela Des Jardins of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, who is leading an experiment in which 50 teams of students in 30 states will fly high-altitude balloons during the eclipse. Speaking on June 2 at the 47th annual conference of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society in Boulder, Colorado, she described how the balloons will transmit to the Earth's surface live video from the edge of space. Only once has an eclipse ever been observed from such a height—over Australia, in 2012—though coverage and images were then limited. "There's never been live footage from the edge of space, and certainly not coverage across an entire continent," she said. "It's going to be awesome."

Scientists anticipate filling other gaps in our understanding of the Sun as well. According to astronomer Shadia Habbal of the University of Hawaii, the eclipse will provide to scientists "unsurpassed views of the physics of the solar corona," the halo of plasma surrounding the Sun that burns at 1,000,000 degrees Kelvin. During the eclipse, when the Sun is blotted out, instruments will be able to observe the intricate details of coronal structures, register the escape of material from the Sun, and capture plasma instabilities otherwise too faint to observe. "The solar corona is a rich astronomical laboratory we can observe in exquisite detail," Habbal noted.

ENGAGING—AND EDUCATING—THE PUBLIC

In 2014, the National Science Foundation mounted a study that it repeats every few years, in which it tests scientific literacy by asking Americans whether the Earth goes around the Sun, or the Sun goes around Earth. This question was settled in the 17th century, but apparently word hasn't yet reached everyone: 26 percent of the American public thinks the Sun orbits the Earth. ("We hope to decrease this percentage by a little bit," said Des Jardins.) If for no other reason, then, scientists hope the eclipse will spur people to look up and consider the solar system, how it works, and our place in it.

Jay Pasachoff, a professor at Williams College and the astronomy equivalent of Indiana Jones, travels the world to study eclipses. He has observed 63 of them. He wants the public to travel to the path of totality and be active participants in the 2017 eclipse. "We want to let you know in advance that you will be missing some really wonderful stuff if you are not in the zone of totality on August 21," he said at the conference. (Previously, he described witnessing an eclipse outside of the path "like going up to the ticket booth of a baseball or football stadium but not going inside.")

Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

To view the eclipse for its maximum duration, observers will have to travel to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. There, the eclipse can be experienced for a full two minutes, 40 seconds, during which time it will become as "dark as night in the middle of the day," according to Pasachoff. The town has been preparing for the event for several years, building accommodations for a large influx of visitors, who are expected to number in the hundreds of thousands. A dress rehearsal of sorts was held in June 2012, when thousands flocked there to view the transit of Venus.

There are other vantages along the continental path, however, that offer shorter viewings but unique experiences. In Kentucky alone, one can forego Hopkinsville and instead choose Bowling Green, where the totality of the eclipse will be shorter but the Sun's reddish chromosphere will be more visible. Elsewhere in the country, many are expected to climb mountains and not only witness the eclipse above, but also look down and watch as the moon's shadow crawls eerily across the ground below.

All of this, of course, depends on clear skies. "You can't outrun the clouds, so hope for good weather," said Pasachoff. But even if unfavorable weather obscures the event, there will still be a creepy darkening of the skies to be enjoyed. Meanwhile, NASA's website, and others, will be broadcasting the event. In the worst-case scenario, the wait won't be terribly long for the next solar eclipse—just seven years. On April 8, 2024, the path of totality of a solar eclipse will cross from Mexico to Newfoundland, passing over much of the central-eastern U.S. in the process.

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15 Facts About the Summer Solstice
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It's the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, so soak up some of those direct sunrays (safely, of course) and celebrate the start of summer with these solstice facts.

1. THIS YEAR IT'S JUNE 21.

June 21 date against a yellow background
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The summer solstice always occurs between June 20 and June 22, but because the calendar doesn't exactly reflect the Earth's rotation, the precise time shifts slightly each year. For 2018, the sun will reach its greatest height in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere on June 21 at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time.

2. THE SUN WILL BE DIRECTLY OVERHEAD AT THE TROPIC OF CANCER.

A vintage mapped globe showing the Tropic of Cancer
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While the entire Northern Hemisphere will see its longest day of the year on the summer solstice, the sun is only directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude).

3. THE NAME COMES FROM THE FACT THAT THE SUN APPEARS TO STAND STILL.

Stonehenge at sunrise.
CARL DE SOUZA, AFP/Getty Images

The term "solstice" is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the sun's relative position in the sky at noon does not appear to change much during the solstice and its surrounding days. The rest of the year, the Earth's tilt on its axis—roughly 23.5 degrees—causes the sun's path in the sky to rise and fall from one day to the next.

4. THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BONFIRE WAS PART OF A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION.

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Celebrations have been held in conjunction with the solstice in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Among these is Sankthans, or "Midsummer," which is celebrated on June 24 in Scandinavian countries. In 2016, the people of Ålesund, Norway, set a world record for the tallest bonfire with their 155.5-foot celebratory bonfire.

5. THE HOT WEATHER FOLLOWS THE SUN BY A FEW WEEKS.

Colorful picture of the sun hitting ocean waves.
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You may wonder why, if the solstice is the longest day of the year—and thus gets the most sunlight—the temperature usually doesn't reach its annual peak until a month or two later. It's because water, which makes up most of the Earth's surface, has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a while to both heat up and cool down. Because of this, the Earth's temperature takes about six weeks to catch up to the sun.

6. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE GATHER AT STONEHENGE TO CELEBRATE.

Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

People have long believed that Stonehenge was the site of ancient druid solstice celebrations because of the way the sun lines up with the stones on the winter and summer solstices. While there's no proven connection between Celtic solstice celebrations and Stonehenge, these days, thousands of modern pagans gather at the landmark to watch the sunrise on the solstice.

7. PAGANS CELEBRATE THE SOLSTICE WITH SYMBOLS OF FIRE AND WATER.

Arty image of fire and water colliding.
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In Paganism and Wicca, Midsummer is celebrated with a festival known as Litha. In ancient Europe, the festival involved rolling giant wheels lit on fire into bodies of water to symbolize the balance between fire and water.

8. IN ANCIENT EGYPT, THE SOLSTICE HERALDED THE NEW YEAR.

Stars in the night sky.
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In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice preceded the appearance of the Sirius star, which the Egyptians believed was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile that they relied upon for agriculture. Because of this, the Egyptian calendar was set so that the start of the year coincided with the appearance of Sirius, just after the solstice.

9. THE ANCIENT CHINESE HONORED THE YIN ON THE SOLSTICE.

Yin and yang symbol on textured sand.
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In ancient China, the summer solstice was the yin to the winter solstice's yang—literally. Throughout the year, the Chinese believed, the powers of yin and yang waxed and waned in reverse proportion to each other. At the summer solstice, the influence of yang was at its height, but the celebration centered on the impending switch to yin. At the winter solstice, the opposite switch was honored.

10. IN ALASKA, THE SOLSTICE IS CELEBRATED WITH A MIDNIGHT BASEBALL GAME.

Silhouette of a baseball player.
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Each year on the summer solstice, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks celebrate their status as the most northerly baseball team on the planet with a game that starts at 10:00 p.m. and stretches well into the following morning—without the need for artificial light—known as the Midnight Sun Game. The tradition originated in 1906 and was taken over by the Goldpanners in their first year of existence, 1960.

11. THE EARTH IS ACTUALLY AT ITS FARTHEST FROM THE SUN DURING THE SOLSTICE.

The Earth tilted on its axis.
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You might think that because the solstice occurs in summer that it means the Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical revolution. However, the Earth is actually closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and is farthest away during the summer solstice. The warmth of summer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth's axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time. 

12. IRONICALLY, THE SOLSTICE MARKS A DARK TIME IN SCIENCE HISTORY.

Galileo working on a book.
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Legend has it that it was on the summer solstice in 1633 that Galileo was forced to recant his declaration that the Earth revolves around the Sun; even with doing so, he still spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. AN ALTERNATIVE CALENDAR HAD AN EXTRA MONTH NAMED AFTER THE SOLSTICE.

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In 1902, a British railway system employee named Moses B. Cotsworth attempted to institute a new calendar system that would standardize the months into even four-week segments. To do so, he needed to add an extra month to the year. The additional month was inserted between June and July and named Sol because the summer solstice would always fall during this time. Despite Cotsworth's traveling campaign to promote his new calendar, it failed to catch on.

14. IN ANCIENT GREECE, THE SOLSTICE FESTIVAL MARKED A TIME OF SOCIAL EQUALITY.

Ancient Greek sculpture in stone.
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The Greek festival of Kronia, which honored Cronus, the god of agriculture, coincided with the solstice. The festival was distinguished from other annual feasts and celebrations in that slaves and freemen participated in the festivities as equals.

15. ANCIENT ROME HONORED THE GODDESS VESTA ON THE SOLSTICE.

Roman statue of a vestal virgin
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In Rome, midsummer coincided with the festival of Vestalia, which honored Vesta, the Roman goddess who guarded virginity and was considered the patron of the domestic sphere. On the first day of this festival, married women were allowed to enter the temple of the Vestal virgins, from which they were barred the rest of the year.

A version of this list originally ran in 2015.

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15 Facts About Nicolaus Copernicus
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Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus fundamentally altered our understanding of science. Born in 1473, he popularized the heliocentric theory that all planets revolve around the Sun, ushering in the Copernican Revolution. But he was also a lifelong bachelor and member of the clergy who dabbled in medicine and economics. Dive in to these 15 facts about the father of modern astronomy.

1. HE CAME FROM A FAMILY OF MERCHANTS AND CLERGY.

Some historians believe that Copernicus's name derives from Koperniki, a village in Poland named after tradesmen who mined and sold copper. The astronomer's father, also named Nicolaus Copernicus, was a successful copper merchant in Krakow. His mother, Barbara Watzenrode, came from a powerful family of merchants, and her brother, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, was an influential Bishop. Two of Copernicus's three older siblings joined the Catholic Church, one as a canon and one as a nun.

2. HE WAS A POLYGLOT.

Growing up, Copernicus likely knew both Polish and German. When Copernicus's father died when he was around 10, Lucas Watzenrode funded his nephew's education and he started learning Latin. In 1491, Copernicus began studying astronomy, math, philosophy, and logic at Krakow University. Five years later, he headed to modern Italy's Bologna University to study law, where he likely picked up some Italian. During his studies, he also read Greek, meaning modern historians think he knew or understood five languages.

3. HE WASN'T THE FIRST PERSON TO SUGGEST HELIOCENTRISM …

 A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
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Copernicus is credited with introducing heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. But several ancient Greek and Islamic scholars from various cultures discussed similar ideas centuries earlier. For example, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer who lived in the 200s BCE, theorized that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.

4. … BUT HE DIDN'T FULLY GIVE CREDIT TO EARLIER SCHOLARS.

To be clear, Copernicus knew of the work of earlier mathematicians. In a draft of his 1543 manuscript, he even included passages acknowledging the heliocentric ideas of Aristarchus and other ancient Greek astronomers who had written previous versions of the theory. Before submitting the manuscript for publication, though, Copernicus removed this section; theories for the removal range from wanting to present the ideas as wholly his own to simply switching out a Latin quote for a "more erudite" Greek quote and incidentally removing Aristarchus. These extra pages weren't found for another 300-some years.

5. HE MADE CONTRIBUTIONS TO ECONOMICS.

He's known for math and science, but Copernicus was also quite the economist. In 1517, he wrote a research paper outlining proposals for how the Polish monarch could simplify the country's multiple currencies, especially in regard to the debasement of some of those currencies. His ideas on supply and demand, inflation, and government price-fixing influenced later economic principles such as Gresham's Law (the observation that "bad money drives out good" if they exchange for the same price; for example, if a country has both a paper $1 bill and a $1 coin, the value of the metal in the coin is higher than the value of the cotton and linen in the bill, and thus the bill will be spent as currency more because of that) and the Quantity Theory of Money (the idea that the amount of money in circulation is proportional to how much goods cost).

6. HE WAS A PHYSICIAN, SANS THE MEDICAL DEGREE.

After studying law, Copernicus traveled to the University of Padua so he could become a medical advisor to his sick uncle, Bishop Watzenrode. Despite spending two years studying medical texts and learning anatomy, Copernicus left medical school without a doctoral degree. Nevertheless, he traveled with his uncle and treated him, as well as other members of the clergy who needed medical attention.

7. HE WAS PROBABLY A LIFELONG BACHELOR …

An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

As an official in the Catholic Church, Copernicus took a vow of celibacy. He never married and was most likely a virgin (more on that below), but children were not completely absent from his life: After his older sister Katharina died, he became the financial guardian of her five children, his nieces and nephews.

8. … BUT HE MAY HAVE HAD AN AFFAIR WITH HIS HOUSEKEEPER.

Copernicus took a vow of celibacy, but did he keep it? In the late 1530s, the astronomer was in his sixties when Anna Schilling, a woman in her late forties, began living with him. Schilling may have been related to Copernicus—some historians think he was her great uncle—and she worked as his housekeeper for two years. For unknown reasons, the bishop he worked under admonished Copernicus twice for having Schilling live with him, even telling the astronomer to fire her and writing to other church officials about the matter.

9. HE WENT TO FOUR UNIVERSITIES BEFORE GETTING A DEGREE.

A Polish stamp of Nicolaus Copernicus.
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Copernicus spent over a decade studying at universities across Poland and Italy, but he usually left before he got his degree. Why skip the diplomas? Some historians argue that at the time, it was not unusual for students to leave a university without earning a degree. Moreover, Copernicus didn't need a degree to practice medicine or law, to work as a member of the Catholic Church, or even to take graduate or higher level courses. 

But right before returning to Poland he received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. According to Copernicus scholar Edward Rosen this wasn't exactly for scholarly purposes, but that to "show that he had not frittered his time away on wine, women, and song, he had to bring home a diploma. That cost much less in Ferrara than in the other Italian universities where he studied."

10. HE WAS CAUTIOUS ABOUT PUBLICIZING HIS VIEWS …

During Copernicus's lifetime, nearly everyone believed in geocentrism—the view that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. Despite that, in the 1510s Copernicus wrote Commentariolus, or "the Little Commentary," a short text that discussed heliocentrism and was circulated amongst his friends. It was soon found circulating further afield, and it's said that Pope Clement VII heard a talk about the new theory and reacted favorably. Later, Cardinal Nicholas Schönberg wrote a letter of encouragement to Copernicus, but Copernicus still hesitated in publishing the full version. Some historians propose that Copernicus was worried about ridicule from the scientific community due to not being able to work out all of the issues heliocentrism created. Others propose that with the rise of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was increasingly cracking down on dissent and Copernicus feared persecution. Either way, he didn't make his complete work public until 1543.

11. … SO HE PUBLISHED HIS BOOK ON HIS DEATHBED.

An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system.
An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system, at the Tokyo International antique book fair on March 12, 2008. The book, published in 1543 and entitled in Latin "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI," carries a diagram that shows the Earth and other planets revolving around the Sun, countering the then-prevailing geocentric theory.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO, AFP/Getty Images

Copernicus finishing writing his book explaining heliocentrism, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs), in the 1530s. When he was on his deathbed in 1543, he finally decided to publish his controversial work. According to lore, the astronomer awoke from a coma to read pages from his just-printed book shortly before passing away.

12. GALILEO WAS PUNISHED FOR AGREEING WITH COPERNICUS.

Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope, but the Catholic Church repudiated it decades after it was published, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books—pending revision—in 1616. A few years later, the Church ended the ban after editing the text to present Copernicus's views as wholly hypothetical. In 1633, 90 years after Copernicus's death, the Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of "strong suspicion of heresy" for espousing Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism. After a day in prison, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. THERE'S A CHEMICAL ELEMENT NAMED AFTER HIM.

Take a look at the periodic table of elements, and you might notice one with the symbol Cn. Called Copernicium, this element with atomic number 112 was named to honor the astronomer in 2010. The element is highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope having a half life of around 30 seconds.

14. ARCHEOLOGISTS FINALLY DISCOVERED HIS REMAINS IN 2008.

Frombork Cathedral
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Although Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried somewhere under the cathedral where he worked, archeologists weren't sure of the exact location of his grave. They performed excavations in and around Frombork Cathedral, finally hitting pay dirt in 2005 by finding part of a skull and skeleton under the church's marble floor, near an altar. It took three years to complete forensic facial reconstruction and compare DNA from the astronomer's skeleton with hair from one of his books, but archeologists were able to confirm that they had found his skeleton. Members of the Polish clergy buried Copernicus for a second time at Frombork in 2010.

15. THERE ARE MONUMENTS TO HIM AROUND THE WORLD.

The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Warsaw, Poland.
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A prominent statue of the astronomer, simply called the Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, stands near the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. There are also replicas of this monument outside Chicago's Adler Planetarium and Montreal's Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Besides monuments, Copernicus also has a museum and research laboratory—Warsaw's Copernicus Science Centre—dedicated to him.

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