A fellow EpBlogger wanted to know if Williams College is paying for this:

When the moon blots out the sun’s blinding rays on Sunday, a sliver of the Earth’s surface will be plunged into eerie darkness.

Travelers who have crossed thousands of miles to witness the celestial show will gaze at the sky and, for a few minutes, see a thing most people never get to see: a halo of fire — the sun’s corona — flickering around the edges of the silhouette of the moon.

But Jay Pasachoff, over on Easter Island, may be looking down more than up — calibrating his instruments, checking for technical glitches, peering through lenses. He doesn’t need to look up. He’s seen 28 total eclipses, and 50 eclipses in all.

The Williams College astronomy professor saw his first total eclipse at age 16, when he was a freshman at Harvard. Flying with classmates above the cloud line in a DC-3 just north of Boston in October 1959, he gazed at the spectacle through the double-pane airplane window. “I could see it low in the sky, see it straight out — and it was wonderful,” he said.

He fell in love.

He’s looked up the details on eclipses set to occur in upcoming decades. He has a list of them out to the year 3000.

These days, scientists like Pasachoff head to solar eclipses because the observations they make reveal facts about the nature and behavior of the sun — and, by extension, more distant stars.

They are also trying to understand how the corona, the sun’s “atmosphere” of plasma, can somehow be nearly 1,000 times hotter than the solar surface. Pasachoff and others believe that studying how the sun’s magnetic field interacts with the corona could help pave the way to building clean-energy generators on Earth.

So he feels it’s hardly overkill to pursue eclipse after eclipse. All he gets, after all, are a few minutes every year or two to move his work ahead.

“If you were a heart surgeon,” he said, “and somebody told you if you went to Easter Island next week [you could] look inside a human heart for four minutes and 45 seconds, no one would question you if two years later you said, ‘That was great, but I wanna do it somewhere else at the next opportunity.’ ”

A cool analogy. Comments:

1) Professor Pasachoff is a genius for picking a scientific field that allows him to do so much cool traveling. I want to visit Easter Island too!

2) My guess is that Williams funds very little (any?) of Pasachoff’s (large?) eclipse travel budget. Anyone know? I think that, although Williams does provide funds for faculty research, those funds are very limited, as they should be. If you want to spend hundreds (tens?) of thousands of dollars, you need to get outside support.

3) Assuming that Pasachoff gets support from some taxpayer supported organization like the NSF, I would still have complaints. Don’t tax me so Pasachoff can go off on these junkets.

4) The expenses associated with such a trip might be so low that Pasachoff could self-fund. A senior professor like him makes around $200,000 per year.

More excerpts below the break:

Eclipses have long been a way of life for the Pasachoff family — Pasachoff’s wife, Naomi, also works at Williams College, and their daughters Deborah and Eloise often accompanied them on eclipse expeditions as children. Even when Pasachoff went solo, the family was standing by at home, on call.

“There’s always eclipse errands. It’s a very drama-filled lifestyle,” said Deborah Pasachoff, who has observed eight total eclipses, the first when she was an infant.

Days before the 1983 eclipse in Java, Indonesia, Naomi Pasachoff got a panicked call from her husband. A digital data recorder wasn’t working, and Java wasn’t known for its spare electronics parts. Naomi dug up the home phone number for the president of Tektronix, manufacturer of the recorder. The executive located a replacement in Boston.

Naomi asked a colleague to pick up the device and buy a plane ticket to Java on her husband’s American Express card. The colleague talked his way through Indonesian customs by showing officials an article Jay Pasachoff had written for National Geographic about a 1970 eclipse. He arrived at the observation site just in time.

In the early days, before wide use of cellphones and e-mail, the parents could be incommunicado for weeks at a time when they were off studying eclipses.

“It was always ‘Where are Mom and Dad?’ instead of ‘How are Mom and Dad?’ ” said Deborah Pasachoff, now 33 and living in Pasadena. Their mother devised a system to keep the daughters in touch — a prepared package of letters, typewritten on turtle-themed stationery, describing what the parents were up to at each step.

“Every day,” Deborah said, “whoever was staying with us would read a letter to us — ‘I hope you have a good time with so and so this afternoon … today we went to see the Taj Mahal.’ ”

When the daughters could go with their parents, they often served as educational emissaries, instructing local schoolchildren on how to view an eclipse safely (fine to look straight up when the eclipse is total, but an eye-searing no-no when the sun is partially covered).

And they’d look out for their dad as he fiddled with his instruments during those crucial few minutes of dark.

“We always have to remind him … you can take your eyeball away from these lenses for a minute.”

Facebooktwitter
Print  •  Email