The 3‑D experience of a lifetime: Observing the partial solar eclipse at Dal

- August 25, 2017

Gazing up at the sun, via telescope, at the solar eclipse. (Danny Abriel photos)
Gazing up at the sun, via telescope, at the solar eclipse. (Danny Abriel photos)

It seemed like a typically sunny summer Monday — but to the crowd of people that gathered in front of the Dunn Building, the sunshine had a different draw than usual. For the first time in years, Haligonians had the opportunity to see a partial solar eclipse.

Approximately 350 people (and two dogs) dropped by the Dunn Building on Monday afternoon as the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science hosted a free public viewing for the duration of the partial eclipse.

Viewing a partial eclipse requires proper and safe equipment. Dalhousie instructors were present Monday afternoon to monitor several telescopes set up for the viewing and answer questions from the public. High volumes of people waited patiently in line for a few seconds’ look at the partially obscured sun.

"It's great to see the public interested in science events like this,” said Lauren Utter, a telescope moderator at the viewing. “Public knowledge is power. Now more than ever.”

For visitors of all ages, the eclipse was a learning experience. Under the telescopic solar filters the sun is visible only as a red or white circle in an otherwise completely black frame. "When kids see it, they say it looks like the moon,” Utter shares.

Community under the sun

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon’s orbit lines up with the sun as it passes. The difference in size and the distance between the two bodies makes them appear to be the same size to those of us on the ground. During a total eclipse the moon completely covers the sun’s body and only its fiery atmosphere — the corona — is visible. Total solar eclipses are rare because the path of the moon’s shadow, or the track of totality, is very narrow in relation to the size of the Earth: approx. 100 km in width.

Although Halifax was not in the path of a total eclipse this time, the air was filled with excitement and wonder as hundreds of people came together to observe the unique celestial event.

Looking like they had a front-row seat to the 3-D experience of a lifetime, some spectators had brought special shades for the occasion. Throughout the afternoon, the shades were shared around so that everyone would have a chance to look up at the eclipse. Handmade projectors of cardboard and duct tape, some provided by the Physics Department, were leant out as well.

Projection screens abounded, set up to display the shadow cast by the Moon as it passed through the sun’s light. All around the steps of the Dunn Building, spectators could be seen using a combination of shades and cell phones to get the perfect shot of the eclipse.   

Celestial wonder

An event like a solar eclipse does more than amaze us: it brings people together and reminds us of the marvellous universe we inhabit.

For Utter, it’s the excitement of the youngest observers that makes the event meaningful. “I especially love seeing all the kids involved,” she said. “Having that sense of fun with science is awesome.”

For David Tindall (left), retired physics professor, it demonstrates the power of physics as well as the marvel of nature.

“We can make such accurate predictions of [these events] using the equations first developed nearly 400 years ago by Sir Isaac Newton,” he said. “It’s a real wonder.”

Dr. Tindall has previous experience with magnificent celestial events. He witnessed the last total eclipse to cross over Nova Scotia in 1972 on July 10. “It can only be described as magical,” he recalled. “If you ever get a chance to view a total solar eclipse, you should take it!”

Maritimers won’t have to wait too long for their next eclipse-watching opportunity: the 2024 total solar eclipse is set to cross the middle of New Brunswick.


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