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Best Not to Stare at the Sun During an Eclipse — That's What the TV's There For
August 19, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

No one is suggesting the world will end, of course, though the late, great Isaac Asimov and fellow science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg foretold exactly that in their classic 1941 novella Nightfall.

Nightfall tells the story of how sudden darkness caused by a prolonged solar eclipse causes panic, disorder, and chaos on a planet that has never known night.

Earthbound scientists in the here-and-now aren’t too worried, of course, though no one would deny that we’re living in strange times.

For the first time in 99 years — itself a portentous number — a total solar eclipse will span the continental US, in a wide band of totality stretching from Oregon to South Carolina.

The Science Channel is acknowledging the event with a live broadcast from Madras, Oregon, starting at noon ET, as well an hour-long primetime special, The Great American Eclipse, at 9 p.m. ET, hosted by NASA astronaut Mike Massimino.

No one, least of all the three scientists who will appear in Science Channel’s live broadcast, expect the day won’t go ahead as planned, if only because a classic science-fiction story from the early 1940s seems a little far-fetched in the real world, even in times as out-of-sorts as these.

Amir Caspi, senior research scientist at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute, James Bullock, physics chair at the University of California-Irvine and Angela Des Jardins, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium and leader of the Eclipse Ballooning Project, assured reporters at last month’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, that even if the world does come to an end Monday, it won’t be because of a solar eclipse, even if it has been 99 years since the last eclipse on this scale.

The path of totality, that part of the eclipse where the moon completely blocks the sun, will be just 70 miles wide, starting at the coast of Oregon and stretching in a band diagonally across the continental US to the coast of South Carolina.

The entire US will experience at least a part of the eclipse though, Des Jardins noted. It’s just those people who live within the 70-mile band of totality whose world will go completely dark.

Assuming the sky is clear, Des Jardins (below) said, “You’ll be able to see the ghostly halo of the sun’s atmosphere around the moon, poking out.”

Don’t be scared, she added, be excited.

“I really encourage anybody who has a chance to be in the path of totality to do that. It’s the most amazing natural phenomenon that you can see from the surface of the Earth. It’s just amazing.”

The entire time the eclipse will take from coast to coast is about 90 minutes — roughly the same time as a season-ender of Game of Thrones.

At any one point within the path of totality, the world will go dark for two minutes, “give or take.”

Scientists will stare at the sun throughout the duration, using high-powered telescopes and other instrumentation in a classic case of don’t-try-this-at-home.

“When the solar disk is blocked out, you can actually see the solar corona,” Caspi said, explaining the science. “We’re interested in two things: what makes the corona so hot. The corona is millions of degrees, whereas the surface of the sun, the visible surface that we can see, which we call the photosphere, is typically a few thousand degrees. There’s energy getting into the corona to make it so hot. But how? What’s the source? How is that energy being transferred?

“The other thing we’re trying to study is why the corona is so well structured. When you look at pictures from past eclipses, or you look at ultraviolet images that have been taken from satellites, you see that there are these well-formed loops and arcs and fans. They’re relatively stable, and they stay relatively smooth. They look like they’ve been freshly combed and not snarled or matted.  . . The corona is constantly releasing little bits of twists and complexity, and we’re trying to find out why.”

Of course, if that all sounds a bit too specific and pointy-headed to you, you can always catch up later on TV, in the primetime special.

This will be the most observed eclipse ever in the continental US, Des Jardins added, because of advances in social media.

This eclipse is unique, too, because it will cross such a wide path of land, and because live broadcast like the Science Channel’s will inevitably involve a lot of media interaction across different platforms. This is the first Twitter eclipse.

“One thing that’s important is that a whole new generation of people — kids — are going to have a chance to see this,” Bullock added. “It’s pretty awe-inspiring to stand in the shadow of the moon. It’s spectacular. You can actually see the corona with your eye. So we have a chance perhaps for a whole generation of kids to be inspired by this physical, astronomical event that’s not part of some video game but is happening in the real world around them.”

The Science Channel will prepare the way for the eclipse with a primetime special the night before, on Sunday, also at 9 p.m. ET.

Drummond, Caspi and Des Jardins will appear in Sunday’s “pregame show,” and throughout the live coverage Monday. The same-day primetime special will be hosted by former NASA astronaut and Columbia University professor of mechanical engineering Mike Massimino (left).

Massimino comes to the role honestly: while flying aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 2009, on NASA’s final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Massimino became the first person to tweet from space.

During the live coverage, Drummond, Caspi, and Des Jardins will be based in Madras, Oregon, the first point of land the eclipse will be visible in the US — and statistically shown to have a 95 to 98 percent chance of clear skies this time of year — while Massimino will be based in South Carolina, at the tail end of the eclipse. The primetime special will focus on highlight images from the eclipse, as well as the results of as many on-the-spot scientific experiments the producers can manage to squeeze in.

Most of the results from hard-science experiments will take months to analyze and interpret, though, Science Channel general manager Marc Etkind admitted.

Whatever happens in the live broadcast, or in the primetime highlights program later in the day, social media will be there to record every moment.

“The fact that there’s social media now that can put all of this into people’s hands within seconds is really helping get this kind of science out to people who otherwise might not have known about it before,” Caspi said. “Maybe they didn’t watch particular TV channels, or they didn’t read the newspaper or see various photographs. Maybe they didn’t get that kind of education in school.

“This time, you’re going to see it on Twitter; you’re going to see it on Facebook. It’s exposing people in so many different ways.”

The 24-hour cable news channels can be expected to cover the eclipse live, in their own inimitable, over-the-top way, complete with flashy graphics and loud, brassy music.

No worries, Bullock insisted. The Science Channel isn’t necessarily competing with CNN or Fox News, in any event.

“I get your point about breathless coverage and how things can get too extreme (on the cable news channels),” Bullock said, with the serenity of a true believer. “On some level, though, if you were going to have a natural event that you wanted to get breathless about, this might be it.”

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