Author: Jason Hancock

Kate Whitaker wins the Sloan Fellowship!

Original UConn Today article here

Rising Star in Astrophysics Receives Sloan Foundation Fellowship

Kate Whitaker, assistant professor of physics, stands next to a telescope inside the observatory on top of the Gant Complex on Feb. 14, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Kate Whitaker, assistant professor of physics, stands next to a telescope inside the observatory on top of the Gant Complex on Feb. 14, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

As an assistant professor of astrophysics, Kate Whitaker spends a lot of her time thinking about stars. Hundreds of billions of stars that comprise galaxies, to be more precise. But with a recent fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it is Whitaker’s star that is shining brightly.

Whitaker is one of 126 outstanding U.S. and Canadian researchers selected by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to receive 2019 Sloan Research Fellowships. The fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955, honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields.

Valued not only for their prestige, Sloan Research Fellowships are a highly flexible source of research support. Funds may be spent in any way a Fellow deems will best advance his or her work.

“Sloan Research Fellows are the best young scientists working today,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Sloan Fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan Fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first century science.”

According to colleagues, Whitaker certainly fits the bill as one of the brightest young minds at UConn and beyond.

“Kate’s record so far is truly impressive and speaks to her potential as a leader in her field,” explains Barry Wells, head of UConn’s Department of Physics. “It was my great pleasure to nominate her for a Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, and I am thrilled they felt she was worthy of the prize.”

An observational extragalactic astronomer, Whitaker’s research tries to reveal how galaxies are evolving from the earliest times to the present day.

In addition to her position at UConn, Whitaker is also an associate faculty at the new Cosmic Dawn Center in Copenhagen, Denmark. Whitaker and her students actively collaborate with DAWN, working towards pushing our detection of quiescent “red and dead” galaxies even earlier in time.

She will be among the world’s first scientists to explore the universe using the new James Webb Space Telescope when it is launched in 2019, which she says will allow her to push into new frontiers of research.

Apart from that exciting work, Whitaker and colleagues Cara Battersby and Jonathan Trump were tasked with building a full-fledged astronomy program from scratch at UConn. Not only has their work exceeded expectations, the fruits of their labor are already beginning to emerge. Whitaker and colleagues have so far created five new astrophysics courses with two more slated for next year, established an official astronomy minor, and are operating a thriving research program that involves doctoral students, undergrads, and even local high school students.

“I am both thrilled at this opportunity and humbled to be named amongst such a prestigious cohort of scientists,” says Whitaker. “With the Sloan Foundation’s generous support, I aspire to continue to lead ground-breaking studies of the distant universe, the mystery of which will no doubt captivate our imaginations.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics. A full list of the 2019 Fellows is available at the Sloan Foundation website at

Goodwin School 3rd grade visits the Physics Learning Labs

About one mile from the Gant plaza, Goodwin Elementary School teaches some really bright kids. On January 15, 2019, science teacher Nancy Titchen and Goodwin teachers brought the entire 3rd grade class on a field trip to the Physics Learning Labs mock-up studio for some science fun. Students enjoyed a liquid nitrogen show, witnessed quantum effects in superconducting magnetic levitation, experienced mechanics concepts such as angular momentum, and learned about vibrations and the phenomenon mechanical of resonance. The expert hands of a star team of PhD students (Erin Curry and Donal Sheets) and new laboratory technicians (James Jaconetta and Zac Transport) ensured students had a great time and learned some interesting science. Big thanks to the staff and the Goodwin School!

Faculty Profile: UConn Astrophysicist Cara Battersby

Meet the Researcher: UConn Astrophysicist Cara Battersby

UConn astrophysicist, Cara Battersby. (Carson Stifel/UConn Photo)

A young Cara Battersby once scrawled out the phrase “Science is curious” in a school project about what she wanted to do when she grew up.

This simple phrase still captures Battersby’s outlook on her research about our universe.

Recently shortlisted for the 2018 Nature Research Inspiring Science Award, Battersby has been working on several projects aimed at unfolding some of the most compelling mysteries of galaxies near and far.

“I’m really interested in how stars are born,” Battersby says. “They’re the source of all life on Earth.”

Many of the “laws” we know about how stars are formed are based exclusively on observations of our own galaxy. Because we don’t have as much information about how stars form in other galaxies with different conditions, these laws likely don’t apply as well as we think they should.

Battersby is leading an international team of over 20 scientists to map the center of the Milky Way Galaxy using the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, in a large survey called CMZoom. She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant to follow-up on this survey and create a 3D computer modeled map of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The center of our galaxy has extreme conditions similar to those in other far-off galaxies that are less easily studied, so the Milky Way is an important laboratory for understanding the physics of star formation in extreme conditions.

By mapping out this region in our own galactic backyard, Battersby will be able to form a better idea of how stars form in more remote areas of the universe.

“I love that astrophysics is one of the fields where I can get my hands into everything,” Battersby says. “Stars are something real that you can actually see and study the physics of.”

Battersby is also investigating the “bones” of the Milky Way. Working with researchers from Harvard University, she is looking at how some unusually long clouds could be clues to constructing a more accurate picture of our galaxy.

“Because of the size of our galaxy, it’s infeasible to send a satellite up there to take a picture,” she says.

Since we are living within the Milky Way it is much harder for us to get a clear idea of what it looks like. We know that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, but we don’t yet know how many “arms” the spiral has and if it’s even a well-defined spiral.

These kinds of celestial mysteries have long fascinated Battersby.

Battersby says she would “devour” astronomy books and magazines her parents gave her, but it wasn’t until college that her passion truly developed.

She did her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Colorado on high-mass stars being formed on the disk of our galaxy. During this research she made an astounding discovery that every high-density cloud in space is already in some phase of forming a star, a process that takes millions of years.

This led her to conclude that star formation starts as the cloud is collapsing bit by bit, modifying previous ideas of the timeline of this process.

“If you look at something new in a way no one’s looked at it before, the universe has a great way of surprising us,” Battersby says.

View full story on UConn Today.


By: Anna Zarra Aldrich ’20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research



Welcoming Barrett Wells as new department head


In August 2018, Professor Barrett Wells entered as the new head of the Physics department, following Professor Nora Berrah.  Barrett is an experimental condensed matter physicists with a robust research program involved in both synthesis and advanced experimentation around novel phases of quantum materials. Barrett brings to the department strong administrative talent, having served a long term as the associate department head for undergraduate affairs as well as chairing many important committees since his arrival at UConn.

Learn more about Professor Wells and the physics department from a recent interview produced by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

UConn Physics major wins national recognition for research

Connor Occhialini – Finalist 2018 LeRoy Apker Undergraduate Achievements Award

by Jason Hancock

One of our star undergraduates, Connor Occhialini, has won national recognition as a finalist in the 2018 LeRoy Apker Undergraduate Achievements Award competition for his research in the UConn Physics department. The honor and distinction is awarded not only for the excellent research achievements of the student, but also for the department that provides the supportive environment and opportunities for students to excel in research. Connor is in fact the second Apker finalist in three years’ time (Michael Cantara was a 2016 Apker finalist). Connor graduated with a BS in Physics from UConn in May 2018 and stayed on as a researcher during summer 2018. During his time here, he developed theoretical models, helped build a pump-probe laser system, and carried out advanced analysis of X-ray scattering data which revealed a new context for an unusual phenomenon – negative thermal expansion. With these outstanding achievements, the department presented Connor’s nomination to the 2018 LeRoy Apker award committee of the American Physical Society. Connor was selected to be one of only four Apker finalists from all PhD-granting institutions in the US. With this prestigious honor, the department receives a plaque and a $1000 award to support undergraduate research. Connor is now a PhD student in the Physics Department at MIT.

Astronomers granted early science time on James Webb space telescope

This item copied from the original UConn Today article by Elaina Hancock. The original article can be found here.

UConn on the Front Line to Glimpse Farthest Reaches of Universe

Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope on Nov. 2, 2016 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The telescope, designed to be a large space-based observatory optimized for infrared wavelengths, will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Two UConn physics professors will be among the world’s first scientists to explore the universe using the new James Webb Space Telescope when it is launched in 2019. The telescope, shown here at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is designed to be a large space-based observatory optimized for infrared wavelengths, and will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two UConn physics professors will be among the world’s first scientists to explore the universe using the new James Webb Space Telescope, as announced earlier this month by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

[The] James Webb [Space Telescope] will begin teaching us entirely new things … things we don’t even know about. — Jonathan Trump

Just like the highly anticipated release of a new phone, game, or gadget, astrophysicists worldwide are eager to start using the new telescope, the latest technology for viewing distant elements of our universe, which is currently set to launch in 2019. But rather than stand in line for hours outside a store, researchers had to submit compelling proposals to secure their spot in line and an opportunity to use the new technology.

The highly competitive, peer-reviewed James Webb Space Telescope Early Release Scienceprogram was created to test the capabilities of the new observatory and to showcase the tools the telescope is equipped with. Of more than 100 proposals submitted, only 13 were chosen to participate in the early release phase, including two separate proposals involving UConn researchers Kate Whitaker and Jonathan Trump, both assistant professors of physics.

Full-resolution mosaic of the CANDELS/EGS field, the survey field for the CEERS proposal's research. (Anton M. Koekemoer/Space Telescope Science Institute)
Full-resolution mosaic of the CANDELS/EGS field, the survey field for the CEERS proposal’s research. (Anton M. Koekemoer/Space Telescope Science Institute)

Passing the Telescope Torch

The James Webb Space Telescope, designed to be a large space-based observatory optimized for infrared wavelengths, will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble telescope has been a versatile workhorse and vital tool since its launch in 1990, allowing researchers to peer deep into space and get crisp glimpses of distant galaxies.

But it has technological limitations, and is not currently scheduled for any upgrades or servicing. Since its last service in 2009, Whitaker says, many researchers have been keeping their fingers crossed that it would continue functioning. Hubble is currently the only way to make observations that are required for the type of research she and many others conduct.

“A lot of my research right now is pushing Hubble to its limits,” she notes. “It’s an exciting time, because with the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope, we will really push into the frontiers of research.”

The Hubble (top left) and James Webb Space Telescope (top right). The middle portion of the image shows the relative location of the telescopes to Earth and the moon; Webb will launch much further into space. At the bottom of the image, the spectrum of light observed by both Hubble and Webb is shown, with Webb’s capabilities stretching farther into the infrared range, well past Hubble’s capabilities. (Slide from the Hubble 25th anniversary website,

The James Webb Space telescope is equipped with tools that will surpass Hubble’s capabilities. Webb will be launched further into space and will be capable of powerful imaging that will produce sharper images and be able to capture images into the infrared range.

Peering into the infrared range allows researchers to observe signatures, in the form of light, from events that happened long ago. The universe is constantly expanding and as light travels, it gets stretched over time, Whitaker explains. The further back you go, say a few billion years or so, the light is stretched so much that it will shift from the visible region of the spectrum into the infra-red.

Cutting-Edge Research, Winning Proposals

Whitaker is a science collaborator on a proposal titled “TEMPLATES: Targeting Extremely Magnified Panchromatic Lensed Arcs and Their Extended Star formation,” exploring star formation in galaxies at a distance of around 10 billion years in the past, something impossible to observe until the high resolution of the new telescope. They hope to more closely study characteristics of those distant galaxies that have until now, only been discernible in more local galaxies.

“Since we cannot travel to these distant galaxies, all we can do is sit here and wait for their light to reach our telescopes,” says Whitaker.

Trump is a co-investigator on the proposal called “CEERS: The Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey,” a plan to conduct an extragalactic survey in hopes of gaining insights into the formation of the first galaxies following the big bang. They plan to look at aspects of the assembly of galaxies, including their number density, chemical abundance, star formation, and the growth of supermassive black holes.

“Hubble has totally transformed our view of the universe and James Webb will begin teaching us entirely new things,” Trump says. “I’m incredibly excited to think about all of the things we don’t even know about, that James Webb will begin to tell us.”

The Early Release Program is aimed not only to showcase the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope right away, but to make the data publicly available as soon as possible. It is anticipated that the data will facilitate huge breakthroughs in research.

Stay tuned: 2019 promises to be an exciting year in astrophysics.

Thousands attended eclipse viewing hosted by UConn Physics

On Monday, August 21, 2017, the moon eclipsed the sun across the US. What began as a small organic outreach activity blossomed into an epic community event. With help from UConn communications, the UConn Physics club, and staff in the physics department, astronomers Jonathan Trump, Cara Battersby, and Kate Whitaker hosted an eclipse viewing event open to the public. Solar projectors, solar glasses, and solar telescope drew and estimated 2,000 visitors, including many children and families to share in the majesty of the heavens.  To read more about the great American eclipse, read the recent UConn Today article by Elaina Hancock, featuring commentary by astronomers Trump and Cynthia Peterson.

For more about the event and others around the state, see this article in the Hartford Courant

Undergraduate achievements receive wide attention

Thermal Funkiness: Explaining the Unexpected

Shrinking scandium fluoride. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
(Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Whoever said rules were made to be broken wasn’t a physicist. When something doesn’t act the way you think it should, either the rules are wrong, or there’s new physics to be discovered. Which is exactly what UConn’s Connor Occhialini ’18 (CLAS), an honors student majoring in physics and math, found when he began researching scandium fluoride.

Scandium fluoride is a transparent crystal with a cubic shape, a byproduct of mining. It’s not used commercially and it wouldn’t be particularly interesting to anyone except for one odd thing: it shrinks as it warms.

Most materials swell as they heat up. Really simple materials like hydrogen gas swell because the heat makes their atoms zoom around faster, bumping into each other more, so the same number of hydrogen atoms need more space. More complicated materials also swell, which is why your wooden front door tends to stick in the summertime. But solids like wood can’t swell as much as a gas because their atoms are tightly linked together into long, interlocked molecules, so they just jiggle around, swelling the door a little bit.

Scandium fluoride must be doing something else, reasoned Occhialini. His advisor for his honors physics project, Jason Hancock, had been working with scandium fluoride, and asked Occhialini to study a model of the crystal’s dynamics. Scandium fluoride has a pretty simple structure: it’s a solid crystal, with each scandium atom surrounded by six fluorines to make stacks of octahedra (eight-sided diamonds). The researchers hoped the simple structure might be easy to understand. Understanding scandium fluoride’s strange ‘negative thermal expansion’, as physicists call the heat-related shrinkage, might yield more general insight into other, more complex materials that do the same thing.

Occhialini’s first step was to simplify the problem. So instead of a three-dimensional crystal, he decided to think about it as a two-dimensional sheet that looks like this:

Figure 1. Shrinking scandium fluoride. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
Figure 1. Help, I’m shrinking! The black diamonds represent scandium fluoride molecules. As they warm, they rotate, and the crystal contracts. Notice how the molecules near the center of mass (central dot) move less than the molecules closer to the crystal’s edge. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Each black diamond represents a molecule of scandium fluoride. The scandium atoms (blue dots) are at the center of each diamond, and a fluorine atom is at each corner.

Most of the time, bonds between atoms are flexible. So in a normal crystalline solid – calcium fluoride, for example – the fluorines and calcium atoms would all be able to wiggle around independently when the material warmed up. As they wiggled, they’d take up a little more space, and the solid would swell. Normal solid behavior.

But Occhialini wondered if maybe that wasn’t what was happening in scandium fluoride. Maybe in this model, he should assume the bonds connecting each fluorine to its scandium were stiff? So stiff the fluorine-scandium bonds don’t move at all, so the diamonds are like solid blocks. The only places the structure would be able to flex when it warmed up would be at the fluorine atoms, which would act like tiny little joints. As the crystal heated up, the little scandium fluoride blocks would tilt around the fluorines at the corners. That’s what you see happening in the picture. You’ll notice that when the diamonds tilt, the whole structure gets smaller. It actually tightens up. The blue outline shows the structure at its coldest, perfectly ordered state, with no molecular motion. When the diamonds tilt, they take up a smaller total volume than the blue outline delineates. This is negative thermal expansion.

Figure 2. The angle, Θ, a scandium fluoride molecule makes as it rotates. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
Figure 2. How much a scandium fluoride crystal shrinks depends on how far the molecules rotate. Here, the blue diamond in the upper right corner is rotating clockwise, sweeping out an angle theta. The dotted lines show its position when the angle was zero. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Occhialini figured out that you can describe this shrinkage mathematically, using just the angle of the molecules’ tilt. He called the angle Θ (theta). When the scandium fluoride blocks tilt by an angle Θ, the distance between the center of each block shortens by a factor of cosine Θ, and the crystal’s total volume shrinks.

To calculate that shrinkage (or, in a normal material, expansion) in detail, Occhialini added a third term to the classic equation that describes the energy of a vibrating crystal. The first two terms in the standard equation describe the potential energy a crystal has from the bending at each molecular junction, plus the kinetic energy of rotation of each molecule. Occhialini’s equation also describes the translational kinetic energy of the molecules–not just from rotating around, but also moving toward and away from their original positions as they rotate. The further they are from the center of mass of the crystal, the more they move. Look back at Figure 1 and notice the dot in the middle; that’s the center of mass. The diamonds in the middle barely move in relation to it, while the diamonds at the edges move a lot. Now imagine how much of a difference there would be if the crystal had millions of molecules instead of just 25. And now you understand how important that third term could be to the energy of the crystal.

Now, molecules being molecules, they don’t just shrink and stay there. They’re moving constantly, and the warmer they get, the more they move. Part of Occhialini’s insight is that, on average, the molecular structure gets bendier the warmer it gets. So the molecules tilt more and spend more time at bigger values of Θ, closer to 45 degrees. After Occhialini thought it over for a while together with Hancock and physics Ph.D. students Sahan Handunkanda and Erin Curry, they realized there was a geometric shape that had the same mathematical description. It’s Archimedes’ spiral pendulum, and it looks like this:

Figure 3. Archimedes' spiral. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
Figure 3. Twist and shrink. The equation describing the rotation of the scandium fluoride molecules is the same as the equation describing the movement of a ball on an Archimedes’ spiral pendulum. Notice how it spends more time at larger angles. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Each turning of the spiral is exactly the same distance from the last. That spacing – the distance between turns – is controlled by Θ. Imagine a line that stretches from the center of the sphere to a point on the spiral. The angle between that line and the pole of the sphere is Θ. You see the little ball traveling along the spiral? That’s the end of the imaginary line. As Θ gets bigger, the ball moves towards the equator. Imagine that the ball represents the instantaneous state of the scandium fluoride crystal – the physicists calculated the statistical average of what every molecule in the crystal is doing. You’ll notice the ball spends more time near the equator of the spiral sphere, that is, it tends to hang out where Θ is large. If the temperature of the crystal drops and the molecules wiggle less, Θ gets smaller, the more time the ball spends near the pole of the sphere and the less the crystal shrinks.

So not only can a really weird phenomenon of a crystal that shrinks as it warms be explained by just assuming the molecules are rigid, but it can be illustrated with a classical geometric shape!

Occhialini was just a freshman when Hancock introduced him to the scandium fluoride puzzle. He had to learn the math as he went, but after about two semesters of working on it he’d figured out the equation that described what was going on. Now in his senior year, he says his research experiences in Hancock’s lab have been integral to his experience as an undergraduate.

The equation works beautifully and explains certain aspects of Hancock’s experimental x-ray measurements as well.

“I learned a lot more doing research than any course could have given me,” Occhialini says.

And now you, dear reader, have learned a little bit, too.

Occhialini’s research has been funded through his advisor’s NSF grant no. DMR-1506825 and a SURF fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Research. He was also named a Treibick Scholar.

The Solar Eclipse Viewing Party

Please join the Department of Physics at UConn for a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party!

Hosted by Prof. Cara Battersby, Prof. Jonathan Trump, and Prof. Kate Whitaker

August 21 2017, Horsebarn Hill 1:00 – 4:00 PM (next to Dairy Bar) weather permitting

From our location, the solar eclipse begins at 1:25pm and ends at 4:00pm. Maximum (partial) occultation occurs at 2:45pm.

The organizers have 150 solar eclipse glasses available on a first-come, first-serve basis (encouraging folks to recycle them when they are
done). No reservations are necessary. Here is the schedule of the events:

  • 2:00pm Short Tutorial on Eclipses
  • 2:45pm Maximum (partial) occultation
  • 3:15pm Ask an Astrophysicist

There will be also an ongoing activity from 1-4pm making pin-hole cameras (great for kids!), while supplies last. Finally, there will be 4 solar
telescopes set up for the entire event.

All ages are welcome!


Join our mailing list for updates:

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UConn astronomers on the American eclipse

A Total Eclipse of the Heart (of America)

Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

A spectacular and likely unforgettable show will take place in the sky Aug. 21.

“Have you ever seen a total solar eclipse?” asks Cynthia Peterson, professor emerita of physics. “It’s a really, really exciting event!”

The reason she and so many others are excited for this event has a lot to do with its rarity. The last time a total solar eclipse was visible from the mainland United States was 38 years ago, in February 1979.

Very specific conditions have to be met to create an eclipse that can be viewed from Earth. The Earth and the moon must align perfectly with the sun as they speed through space, an amazing coincidence. To fully understand how this happens, Peterson says, it’s helpful to know some basic astronomy.

Conditions for a Total Solar Eclipse

A total solar eclipse is only visible from Earth when the moon is new and at a node, meaning the sun and Earth are aligned with the moon in the middle. If the moon is above or below node, no shadow will be cast on Earth and no eclipse will be seen from Earth. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
A total solar eclipse is only visible from Earth when the moon is new and at a node, meaning the sun and Earth are aligned with the moon in the middle. If the moon is above or below node, no shadow will be cast on Earth and no eclipse will be seen from Earth. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

The Earth moves in space around the sun, completing a full orbit once every 365.25 days, she explains. As the Earth and other members of our solar system travel around the sun, they continue in essentially the same plane, on a path called the ecliptic. Some celestial bodies, such as our moon, deviate from the ecliptic slightly.

The orbit of the moon is inclined on the ecliptic plane at an inclination of 5 degrees. As the moon deviates 5 degrees above or below the ecliptic plane, it will cross the plane at points called nodes.

“That is the first essential piece of the eclipse puzzle,” says Peterson. “The moon must be at a node for an eclipse to occur. Otherwise, the moon will not align and no eclipse will be seen from Earth.”

The moon’s position in the lunar cycle is another vital eclipse component. As the Earth travels in its orbit, the moon tags along, keeping its gaze locked on Earth, always facing from the same side as it completes its own orbit around Earth once every 29.5 days. Over the course of a month, the moon’s appearance changes, from crescent to full to crescent again and finally to what appears to be its absence, when it’s called a new moon. A new moon is the other requirement for a solar eclipse.

“The basic rule for a solar eclipse is to have a new moon at a node,” Peterson points out.

The lunar cycle. When the moon appears completely dark or absent it is called a new moon, like the moon at the far left. A new moon is an essential element in a solar eclipse. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
The lunar cycle. When the moon appears completely dark or absent it is called a new moon, like the moon at the far left. A new moon is an essential element in a solar eclipse. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

But during an eclipse, how can our moon, which is relatively small, appear almost as big as the sun, which is pretty gigantic?

Peterson explains, “The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and the sun is also 400 times farther away from the moon, so the moon appears to fit exactly during an eclipse, when they are both the same angular size.”

Holding up her fist, she demonstrates: “Find a large object ahead of you and pretend it is the sun and your fist is the moon. If you hold up your fist and look with one eye, you can’t see the object/sun.”

These are the conditions for a total solar eclipse like the one coming up. “Solar eclipses happen when the new moon obstructs the sun and the moon’s shadow falls on the earth, creating a total solar eclipse.” Peterson moves her fist slightly away from herself until the edges of the object can be seen around it. “Or, when the moon covers the Sun’s center and creates a ‘ring of fire’ around the moon, it’s what’s called an annular eclipse.”

It’s those bits of the sun peeking out from behind the moon – in both partial and total eclipses – that everyone needs to be careful of. It’s extremely important to view the eclipse safely, Peterson stresses. “The problem with the eclipse is that every time it happens, some people are blinded [from looking at it unprotected]. The shadow goes whipping by at 1,000 miles per hour, and you never want to stare at the sun, even a sliver of it.”

So be prepared, and ensure you wear proper solar eclipse eye protection. Regular sunglasses will not help. Solar eclipse glasses can be used, welder’s goggles, or telescopes with proper lenses. Be sure the eye protection you choose is certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Other popular viewing methods are DIY viewing boxes like these.

Peterson, like many others who wish to get the full eclipse experience, will be traveling to an area directly in the path of the eclipse’s shadow. These areas are called totality. The Aug. 21 eclipse will cover an expansive area of totality that will include 14 states and 14 major U.S. cities, stretching from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. For a map of the path of totality, go to the NASA website. Connecticut is unfortunately hours of travel from the nearest totality. Peterson will go as far as Nebraska for the experience.

“You’ll only see a partial eclipse here in Connecticut,” she says. “It will get a little darker, like a cloud covering part of the sun, and then brighten up again.”

The diamond ring is one of the special effects that may be viewed during a total solar eclipse, as seen here in Queensland, Australia, on Nov. 14, 2012. (Getty Images)
The diamond ring is one of the special effects that may be viewed during a total solar eclipse, as seen here in Queensland, Australia, on Nov. 14, 2012. (Getty Images)

She encourages those who can to try to travel to a viewing point for the total eclipse, where they may see “amazing phenomena” like the diamond ring, shadowbands, crescent-shaped solar images under trees (instead of the usual ‘coins’ which are pinhole images of the sun), and extremely sharp shadows in the final minute before totality, due to the very narrow sun at that time. “These phenomena can only be seen in totality,” she says.

The next chance to see a total solar eclipse will be in 2024, when its shadow will be cast closer to Connecticut. It will start in the U.S. in Texas, then make its way north, through northern Vermont and New Hampshire.

“That’s less than seven years from now,” Peterson points out, “but that’s the end of eclipses crossing the U.S. until the 2050s.”

For those on campus next week, you aren’t out of luck. For this eclipse there will be a viewing party on Horsebarn Hill behind the Dairy Bar, from 1 to 4 p.m., hosted by the Department of Physics. “We’ll have solar telescopes, a pinhole camera activity, and will do some short mini-lectures on astronomy at UConn and about how eclipses work,” says Assistant Professor of Physics Jonathan Trump, one of the faculty members who will lead the viewing party.

Peterson, longtime astronomer and scientist, says witnessing an eclipse – especially a total eclipse –  can be extremely emotional. She suggests reading Annie Dillard’s essay about solar eclipses, where the author compares the contrast between viewing a partial eclipse and viewing a total eclipse to the difference between flying in an airplane versus falling out of the airplane. “Those are very different experiences.”

But wherever you are on the afternoon of Aug. 21, Peterson says, stop and enjoy the show: “Good luck and clear skies!”

The eclipse will be live-streamed by NASA, and can also be viewed on PBS’ NOVA at 9 p.m. on Aug. 21.

Copied from the original UConn Today article