Interview with Dr. Jay M. Pasachoff
A Williams College student reporter interview
1. Why Gabon?
This was a case where I looked at a map of the path of the eclipse across the Earth and chose the very best spot: Gabon was the first country that the path traversed after its path across the Atlantic Ocean, so it provided the longest totality possible to photograph from dry land. We had 59 seconds of totality where we were, whereas totality was down to 11 seconds in Kenya. And I didn’t want to go to Congo or the the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is what the path of totality traversed when it left Gabon.
2. What was the purpose of the expedition?
We went to make scientific observations of the structure and motion of the solar corona, providing images of a part of the sun’s atmosphere that is not visible from spacecraft. Further, we went to make spectral observations to measure the temperature of the corona. We are following the structure and temperature of the corona over the sunspot cycle, which is now at its peak–and an astonishingly low peak at that. I’m giving a tutorial this spring about solar astronomy in which we study such things.
3. When did you leave for Gabon?
Because this eclipse occurred during the semester, we minimized our duration in Gabon. We left Williamstown on the Tuesday before the Sunday eclipse, flying overnight to Frankfurt and then, after a few hours, to Libreville, the capital of Gabon. The next day, I lectured in a school, arranged by a young astronomer who is the head of the Gabon astronomical society; our science team went along with me. Fortunately, when I was an undergraduate I took a French course, and I was able to give that lecture in French. In the afternoon, we went to the American Embassy and I lectured to people there about what was going to happen. Fortunately, we got a lead from someone there on how to rent a four-wheel-drive car, which proved vital.
4. Who did you stay with while you were there?
We stayed in a hotel in Libreville for two nights, and then we took a night train six hours south to La Lope, at the north end of the La Lope National Park. (11% of Gabon is now in national parks, to protect the wildlife, which includes elephants, monkeys, water buffalo, and other animals.) Then we stayed two full nights at the Lope hotel. We had to drive almost two hours further (and the road was unpaved) to get to the centerline of the eclipse path.
5. Who else went?
My main companion was Allen Davis ’14, who is doing his senior thesis with me. He sure has a lot of good data for his eclipse now! Flying to Gabon out of Boston, we were joined by Zophia Edwards ’06, who had accompanied my wife and me on a flight over Antarctica to observe the 2003 total solar eclipse. She is now doing a Ph.D. in sociology at BU with a topic that compares Gabon to Trinidad, her home country. She had been in Gabon last year, and had checked out La Lope for us. We are now comparing our ground-based eclipse results with those that Dan Seaton ’01 has been gathering from a spacecraft he runs from Belgium, though Dan wasn’t along this time. With us, we also had Prof. Marek Demianski, who has been a visiting professor of astronomy at Williams on 8 different occasions, covering for Prof. Kwitter and my sabbatical leaves. (He will be back in spring 2015.)
Non-Williams people along included Vojtech Rusin, an solar-astronomer colleague who runs a solar observatory in Slovakia and who is another expert in observing eclipses and studying the solar corona. A late addition to our team was Michael Zeiler, the foremost eclipse mapmaker, because we needed his skills to get us to the best spot for observing, which turned out to be in a tiny village alongside the road. Polly White, also from Santa Fe, made measurements every five minutes of the temperature, showing how it decreased from 99° to 84° when the eclipse covered the sun’s disk, and how there was a 20-minute time-lag after totality before the atmosphere warmed up. Aristeidis Voulgaris of Greece brought a spectrograph he had built; we’ve been working with him since we observed the 2004 transit of Venus from his home institution at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. We were also joined by Rob Lucas of Sydney, Australia, who had been participating with our Williams College team since the Australian eclipse of 2002, and Michael Kentrianakis of New York City, who handled our satellite-phone communication and who made an excellent movie showing the series of eclipse events.
6. What’s an interesting/funny/scary/exciting story from the trip (this can by anything) that you haven’t mentioned yet?
The chance of clear weather, based on 20 years of satellite views, was only about 20%, so we didn’t really know if we would be able to see the eclipse. Still, we convinced the National Geographic Society, that in the case that the eclipse was visible, I was the one who should be there to observe it, to continue the continuity of our observations over the solar-activity cycle. It was a tremendous relief when the sky began to clear a couple of hours before the eclipse began. Only about an hour before the eclipse did I allow myself to really believe that we would see it. And then we saw the opening partial phases through a pretty clear sky, only to have it starting to rain! We were observing a sun partly covered by the moon’s silhouette while the rain was coming down overhead!
I can’t also resist mentioning that a major reason we couldn’t set up our equipment the night before was for fear of being trampled by elephants. We did succeed in seeing elephants, monkeys, and water buffalo from open safari vehicles early in the morning before the eclipse and the afternoon before.
7. What’s one moment you’d like to remember for the rest of your life?
The diamond ring, the dazzling brightness at the edge of the sun that marks the beginning of totality. I hope that everyone reading this makes sure to be in the path of totality during the August 21, 2017, that will cross the continental United States from Oregon to South Carolina, and I wish everyone clear skies for that.
Jay M. Pasachoff
Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy, and Director of the Hopkins Observatory, Williams College;
Chair, Historical Astronomy Division, American Astronomical Society;
Chair, Working Group on Solar Eclipses, International Astronomical Union