Coming soon to a sky near you: a teachable moment

There are 100 days to go until the next eclipse… On January 31st 2018 a total lunar eclipse will produce a red full moon for people in parts of Asia, Australia and the Pacific, and North America.

Total lunar eclipse (Juan Carlos Casado)Image: Juan Carlos Casado

Why does the moon turn red? The earth – a rocky planet about 13,000 km across – moves between the sun and the moon. This blocks the sun’s rays from reaching the moon directly.

But the earth has an atmosphere – a layer of air about 100 km thick. The atmosphere bends some of the sun’s rays around the earth (this is called refraction; it’s why a straw looks bent when you see it in a glass of water). The atmosphere also filters out the blue colour from the sun’s rays (this is called scattering; it’s why the sky looks blue).

So the sun’s rays that eventually reach the moon – after having travelled around the earth, through the atmosphere – are red. This is what gives the moon its awe-inspiring change of colour.


If you miss the red moon in January – because of weather, geography or some other reason – you might get another chance six months later. On July 27th/28th 2018 there will be a total lunar eclipse across Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. And six months after that – on January 20th/21st 2019 – there will be another total lunar eclipse across North America, South America, Europe and parts of Africa.


Thank you to the brilliant Science Learning Hub for the pages on refraction and scattering.


 

The Great American Eclipse on timeanddate.com

It has been a tremendous privilege to work with the incredible team at timeanddate.com on a five-and-a-half hour live broadcast of the Great American Eclipse.

One of the highlights was the screams of schoolchildren when darkness fell upon Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green:


Thank you to everyone who made our broadcast possible, including:

  • Theo Wellington, Jordan Basham and Dr Richard Gelderman at Western Kentucky University
  • Joel Donadel and Noémi Brousmiche at the European Space Agency in Kourou, French Guiana
  • Erwan Prigent and everyone at the PULSAR Kourou Astronomy Club
  • Professor Gordon Orians, University of Washington
  • Monica Young, Sky & Telescope
  • Julie Fooshee, Science Festival Alliance, MIT Museum
  • Dr Jaya Satagopan
  • Martin Stack, Mid Michigan Community College
  • Marcia Witt
  • Dr Donald Bruns
  • Dawn Davis, Fort Sumter National Monument (South Carolina)
  • Jimmie Lucht, Albany Visitors Association (Oregon)
  • Charissa Sedor, Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium (Pennsylvania)
  • Hadley Andersen, Bishop Museum (Hawaii)
  • Rocío Guadalupe Salazar Bastarrachea (Mérida, Mexico)
  • Famri Rusdin (Palu, Indonesia)

“Eclipsim”, and other eclipse stories


Image: Cali Soper

An enormous thank you to everyone who took part in our Science + Stories creative-writing competition, organised in partnership with the North Platte Bulletin and A to Z Books.

Throughout history – across all cultures and societies – people have reacted eclipses by creating stories, from hungry cosmic dogs to combative giant birds. We challenged children in west central Nebraska to write their own version of an eclipse myth, and we were completely dazzled by the originality and creativity of the entries we received.

Congratulations to our five winners, who each receive a copy of the National Geographic Space Encyclopedia:

  • Rebecca Kneipp (3rd grade)
  • Mason Kroon (4th grade)
  • Amanda Phillips (5th grade)
  • Cali Soper (13)
  • Joanna Smith (14)

Cali Soper turned her story into a stunning video, which we broadcast during our live coverage of the eclipse on timeanddate.com:


Thank you to George Lauby and the brilliant team at the North Platte Bulletin, plus the wonderful folks at A to Z Books, for making this competition possible.

Creating new connections across Asia


Image: IMDb, Fantastic Mr. Fox

Last year we launched a total eclipse collaboration between students at Tadulako University (Indonesia) and Western Kentucky University (USA); we also set up an annular and partial eclipse collaboration involving Kobe Shinwa Women’s University (Japan) and the University of Mahajanga (Madagascar). Both these projects included remote teambuilding activities where we did online read-throughs of the science-fiction movie “Europa Report”.

This month we are excited to be meeting old friends and creating new connections! We are bringing together students from Tadulako University, Kobe Shinwa Women’s University and Amagasaki-Kita High School (Japan) for two online read-throughs of the stop-motion animation “Fantastic Mr. Fox”.

Students at Tadulako University preparing for this month’s read-through.

The goals of the project – which involve students from Indonesia, Japan, China and Vietnam – are for students to make new connections, practise English communication skills, and have fun!

As Mr. Fox himself says, in one of cinema’s most inspiring monologues:

I think it may very well be all the beautiful differences among us that just might give us the tiniest glimmer of a chance of saving my nephew and letting me make it up to you for getting us into this crazy whatever-it-is. I don’t know. It’s just a thought. Thank you for listening. Cheers, everyone.

 

We are extremely grateful to everyone who has made this collaboration possible, including Elisa Sesa, Darmawati Darwis, Marsetyo Marsetyo and Mohammad Zulfikar at Tadulako University; Ritsuko Anzai at Amagasaki-Kita High School; and Keisuke Tabata at Kobe Shinwa Women’s University.

Thank you also to Wes Anderson, who has given generously given us a copy of the original script for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”.

Deadline approaching for essay contest

The deadline is approaching for our Science + Stories creative-writing competition, being run in partnership with the North Platte Bulletin and A to Z Books.

We’re challenging people of all ages in west central Nebraska to write their own version of an eclipse myth. The winning authors will receive a copy of the National Geographic Space Encyclopedia, and the deadline for entries is Monday July 31st.

(As always, thank you to Neil Pitts for the brilliant dog cartoon!)

Mystery of the moon’s tilted orbit

I’m extremely grateful to the brilliant planetary scientist Kaveh Pahlevan, who shared some wonderful thoughts in this interview for EarthSky. “When a crime happens, investigative police quickly arrive on the scene and try to preserve the evidence. In the case of the moon’s origin, there was a violent event, but there were no witnesses, and we are arriving on the scene five billion years late!”

Join us for live coverage of the August 21st total solar eclipse

timeanddate.com, the world’s most popular time zone-related website, will be broadcasting a live stream of the total solar eclipse across the United States on August 21st.

I’ll be joining the timeanddate.com team at their HQ in Stavanger, Norway, to present live coverage of events in the sky and on the ground. Our coverage will include:

  • Live telescope feeds from our friends at Slooh
  • Live maps and animations showing the progress of the eclipse
  • Live reports and updates from our correspondents across North America
  • The best photos and videos from social media and the timeanddate.com community

Theo Wellington, a NASA ambassador and eclipse evangelist, will be bringing us updates and interviews from an exciting schools’ event being held in a football stadium at Western Kentucky University. “It’s not a science thing; it is a human thing,” says Richard Gelderman, a professor of physics and astronomy at the university.


Image: Western Kentucky University

The August 21st eclipse begins in the Pacific Ocean at 15:46 UTC, and ends in the Atlantic Ocean at 21:04 UTC. We will cover the entire event on timeanddate.com’s live page: https://www.timeanddate.com/live/


Just for fun, we’ll be trying a live ‘experiment’ on the day… Just before sunset, the edge of the moon’s shadow reaches the edge of western Europe. In Stavanger there will be a 0.5% partial eclipse (in other words, half of one per cent of the sun’s disk will be covered by the moon). With the the sun hanging just above the horizon, will this extremely tiny ‘nick’ be visible in our telescope at timeanddate.com’s HQ…?


By the way, have you seen timeanddate.com’s new tool showing the Distance, Brightness, and Size of Planets? (Which body is closest to us right now: Venus, Mercury or the Sun? What will happen over the next few weeks?)


 

Science + Stories: a creative-writing competition for the 2017 US eclipse

For most of human history, solar eclipses have been unexpected and terrifying events. All over the world, across all cultures and societies, people have reacted to these hair-raising experiences in a very human way. They have made up stories to explain why the sun sometimes vanishes in the middle of the day.


Image: Neil Pitts

In China they told the story of a heavenly dog who tries to eat the sun. Many South American tribes believed eclipses were caused by a giant bird attacking the sun. In North America, the Nuxalk people, who live in the area around Bella Coola in Canada, thought eclipses occur when the sun (rather carelessly) drops his torch.

These myths and stories form an important part of human history. They are some of our earliest attempts to explain the mysteries of the universe.

Today we know precisely when eclipses will happen. That’s good news for us, because it means we don’t have to run around being terrified. For storytellers, however, it’s bad news, because we no longer have the chance to invent tales to try and make sense of what’s going on.

Until now…

Science + Stories

Together with the North Platte Bulletin and A to Z Books, we’re running a creative-writing competition called Science + Stories. We’re challenging young people in west central Nebraska to write their own version of an eclipse myth.

Entries can be up to 150 words long, and there are four age groups. The winners will be the stories that show the greatest originality and creativity, and the winning authors will receive a copy of the National Geographic Space Encyclopedia.

The Great American Eclipse

The total solar eclipse of August 21st 2017 will cross the US from coast to coast. The path of totality (the very narrow, dark orange strip in the map below) runs through 14 states: Oregon, Idaho, Montana (a tiny bit), Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa (a tiny bit), Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

In the town of North Platte, Nebraska, totality will last for 1 minute 40 seconds, starting at 12:54 pm local time. (Many North Platte residents will be travelling 30 miles north of the town to the ‘central line’ of the eclipse, where totality will last for two-and-a-half minutes.)


Image: timeanddate.com

The whole of North America – together with the upper part of South America, plus a tiny bit of western Europe – will experience a partial solar eclipse.

How a solar eclipse made Einstein famous


Images: Wikimedia / CC-PD-Mark

We all know the genius on the left. But who is the genius on the right…?

My latest article for Sky & Telescope magazine asks: “Why do some great scientists become household names, whereas others do not? Why, these days, does everyone in the world know who Einstein is (and what he looked like)? On the other hand, when we do a Google search for ‘Maxwell’, why does the scientist who unified electricity, magnetism and light appear below a musician with the same name? The answers to these questions will lead us to a solar eclipse that took place across South America and Africa 98 years ago.”

“A need to know and increased motivation to learn”

“For cranking motivation levels up to eleven, nothing says ‘teachable moment’ like a solar eclipse…” Sky & Telescope magazine has an article about our science outreach project in Angola :)