Clara Moskowitz: For American scientist‘s Cosmos, quicklyI’m Clara Moskowitz. On April 8, a gift awaits us. A total solar eclipse will be visible across a wide swath of North America, giving us a view of the edges of the sun as the moon passes in front of its face.
Here to talk about the eclipse and what scientists hope to learn from it is science writer Rebecca Boyle, author of an article in our March issue about our amazing sun.
Hello Becky. Thanks for being here.
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Rebecca Boyle: Thanks for inviting me.
Moskowitz: So how important is this eclipse for North America?
boyle: Its a big problem. This is not something that can be seen every day, or even every few years, or even every two decades. It’s quite rare. And to have (one) in such a large swath of the United States and in large population centers will be really special.
Moskowitz: Have you ever seen a total solar eclipse in person?
boyle: I’ve only seen one. And I know that there are people who, after seeing one, go to see as many as they can. And I think that’s a goal I might have for myself later in life. There is nothing like that. It’s hard to overstate how surreal, beautiful, and otherworldly an eclipse is.
We had an annular eclipse in October of last year, which was also quite unique. It’s strange to see how the moon seems to take a bite out of the sun. But a total solar eclipse is incredibly strange, beautiful and mystical, and people are left crying and speechless. It’s really quite special to witness it, not only see it yourself but also see the spectrum of reactions that other people have to seeing this happen.
Moskowitz: I can not wait. So where will you be during this eclipse?
boyle: Right now our plan is to be in Waco, Texas, which is in the path of totality and is, you know, a nice, fairly small city and maybe a little less hectic than a place like Dallas, which was also in our list. of options.
It is actually one of the many cities that this eclipse will affect quite directly. It is passing through many large population centers in the US. So I am prepared for a lot of traffic, which also happened in 2017.
I drove to Kentucky with my family (in 2017) and it took us about nine hours to get home, when it should have taken about four. So this time we’ll see. But the plan is for us to drive from Colorado to Waco, Texas.
Moskowitz: It’s worth the traffic.
boyle: I think so.
Moskowitz: So how important are eclipses to science? What can we learn from them?
boyle: We can learn a lot not only about the Sun but also about the Earth and life on Earth and how it responds. So during an eclipse (this is one of those things that will never cease to amaze me), the moon and the sun appear to be the same size in our sky, even though they are obviously very different sizes.
But the sun is 400 times more distant and 400 times larger than the moon. So they line up almost exactly. And this is something that only happens now, you know? in the distant past on Earth, we would not see the same phenomenon, and in the distant future on Earth, we would not see the same phenomenon of the lunar disk blocking the entire solar disk so that only you can see the corona of the sun. , which is its outer atmosphere.
And it looks like a kind of crown, which is actually what the word means. It is this ring of tendrils of light that you can only visualize during a total eclipse. You can see him, you know, using space instruments all the time. And there are many who observe our sun all the time. But when you’re on Earth and the sun disappears for this brief moment, you can see the sun’s atmosphere in a way that’s really interesting for scientists to understand how our star works.
And at the same time, you know, many animals and humans, as I said, respond to this in a very strange and interesting way. During the last eclipse in 2017, across North America, many scientists and citizen scientists watched how animals and, you know, nature responded. And that will happen again this time. It is quite interesting to see scared animals in the zoo.
The birds return to their shelters. The insects begin to sing as if it were night. It’s always very overwhelming to see all of this.
Moskowitz: So what are some of the big scientific questions that researchers want to answer about the sun?
boyle: So we don’t really have a good handle; we are developing much better information at this time. Well, we don’t really know how the sun works, which is also something I find fun to think about. We don’t know how our star actually works because it is, you know, a turbulent ball of plasma. And it’s really difficult to understand the physics behind how it works and how it generates the solar wind, which comes from the corona, the atmosphere that we can see during an eclipse.
Scientists still want to know how the corona gets so hot. It’s actually much hotter than it should be. According to the laws of thermodynamics, the surface of the Sun is much colder than the atmosphere, which seems illogical. For example, if you’re standing in front of a campfire and the flames themselves are, you know, cooler than the air around the fire, that’s what the sun actually does.
And the mechanisms behind this are not very well understood. And neither is solar wind generation. We’re getting a better idea of this thanks to some new orbiters that are studying the Sun in great detail. But it is an open question how these things are generated and what our star is doing inside that connects with its outside.
Moskowitz: So you mentioned new orbiters. What are these missions and what are they doing? That’s so cool.
boyle: We have two right now that are the main new ones. There’s Parker Solar Probe, named after the (late) astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who predicted the existence of the solar wind and was right about it, and then Solar Orbiter, which is a European Space Agency orbiter, and they’re both of the type take this multispectral image of the sun, in particular the Parker Solar Probe.
It was designed to fly towards the corona and take samples from it. And that’s why it has this incredible heat shield. It’s truly an engineering marvel that they were able to build something that can literally fly into the sun’s outer atmosphere and dip its toes in the water, so to speak.
And now we are learning an incredible amount of detail about how the corona works, how the solar wind is generated, how the corona is heated, how solar flares occur and how they move through the solar wind, (and) how the coronal mass ejections. This happens, which is different from a solar flare but visually looks similar, where the sun unleashes these giant waves of material that come flying towards Earth and the other planets.
And the Parker Solar Probe has been hit directly by some of them, which in some ways is horrifying for the scientists who use this probe, but it’s also really exciting because then they get this direct sample of the sun by throwing this burning material toward their spacecraft. and they can take all kinds of measures.
And these are painting a really new picture of how our star works.
And it will help us better understand our own star, but perhaps other stars as well.
Moskowitz: Wow. So tell me more about other stars. How can studying the Sun tell us about these stars, you know, many thousands of light years away?
boyle: We know that the sun is quite common. I mean, he’s a pretty mediocre star, in some ways. There are many stars like this. In fact, it’s pretty quiet for a star of its type, which is perhaps lucky for us. But it is, you know, the closest astrophysical laboratory; Its light only takes eight minutes to reach us. Therefore, it is an excellent way to study all the functions of a star in the middle of its life cycle, such as our sun.
And there are many, many stars like this in our galaxy and beyond our galaxy. So if we can understand the very basic mechanisms of what makes our star tick, that will help us paint a picture of how other stars in the universe work and perhaps how they connect to their own planets and the stars around them and the environments in which they are found. We are inside and everything that travels through the universe together: how they all interact.
The sun is the next laboratory to begin answering those questions.
Moskowitz: So for people who didn’t have this eclipse on their radar yet or who don’t really notice the sun much in their daily lives other than the light it gives off during the day, why should we care about the sun and all these scientific mysteries? happening inside you?
boyle: I think it’s fascinating to realize that we don’t actually know everything there is to know about our own star. You know, we have an incredible understanding of how galaxies form and merge. You know, we have detailed knowledge about the supermassive black holes at the centers of these galaxies. We know a lot about exoplanet populations and where exoplanets are found around other stars.
We have learned an incredible amount of detail in the last ten years, especially using our eyes in the sky to observe other stars. And yet, we have these pretty persistent mysteries about the star we call home that gave rise to everything that ever existed in the solar system. And I think it’s a really fun problem.
Let’s look inward a little. Let’s look at our own star and understand how it works and what makes it tick. And what will that tell us about how other stars work, but also maybe also about how we got here and, you know, how we think about our own place in the universe?
Moskowitz: Well, thanks Becky. Brilliant. Thanks for being here.
boyle: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Moskowitz: Cosmos, quickly is produced by Jeff DelViscio and Tulika Bose.
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For Scientific American’s cosmos, quicklyI’m Clara Moskowitz.