Sun spot: Hundreds watch the solar eclipse at Yale’s observatory

Monday’s eclipse-viewing event at Yale’s Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium was a celebration of science, springtime, and sociability.
Yale community members viewing the solar eclipse through special glasses

(Photos by Allie Barton)

Laura Wexler circled the date of the solar eclipse on her calendar weeks ago — and Monday afternoon she tried to circle it in her colander.

I was pretty sure I’d get here too late for the glasses,” said Wexler, the Charles H. Farnam Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and of American Studies, as she joined the throng of folks gathered to watch the solar eclipse at Yale’s Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium.

She’d brought a kitchen colander from home and planned to use it like a pinhole projector to display an image of the eclipse on the ground. “An eclipse is a profound re-orienting of where you are in the universe,” said Wexler, who is in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “You don’t think it will have that effect, but it does.”

Several hundred people, young and not-so-young, gathered on the observatory lawn to witness their own, personal, celestial show. People peered into telescopes, donned nifty eclipse glasses, huddled around sunspotters, and deployed homemade pinhole projectors.

(Sunspotters are wooden instruments that use mirrors and lenses to safely show a projection of the Sun’s image.)

Four-year-old Cali Waters of New Haven brought her book about planets and explained the concept of sunspots; Mila Srivastava celebrated her 16th birthday, complete with cupcakes and candles, with friends from Amity High School; Joseph Wolenski, senior lecturer and research scientist in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, showed up with his “Experimental Strategies in Cellular Biology” students.

(Photos by Allie Barton)

They joined an army of amateur (and professional) astronomers across the United States who watched the April 8 total solar eclipse as it traveled a “path of totality” from Texas to Maine.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely covers the sun, causing a temporary, daytime darkness. For folks on the Yale campus, the event was a partial eclipse, reaching 91% coverage of the sun at about 3:25 p.m.

I’ve never seen a solar eclipse before, and who knows if I’ll get the opportunity to see one again,” said Maureen O’Donnell-Young, a hospitality staff member at Yale who arrived at the observatory with her husband, Mike Young.

Mike made a pinhole projector. “You can see the moon starting to go across,” he said.

A young man tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, may I try your pinhole camera?” he asked.

The observatory’s back deck was filled with people, many lined up to have Christopher Lindsay, a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in astronomy, show them how to take a photo of the eclipse with the help of a telescope. “See? There’s already a big bite taken out of the sun,” he said to a grateful visitor.

Amena Keshawarz, a research scientist at CORE, arrived with her husband, Waleed Ahmad, and not one, but two, pinhole projectors made from cereal boxes. “It’s just fun to witness this with other people,” Ahmad said. “It’s like being in a movie theater.”

It even came with a twist ending.

Half an hour before peak coverage, a batch of clouds meandered in front of the sun, blocking the view somewhat. But then, at 3:20, the clouds parted, the sun re-emerged, and the Yale crowd burst into spontaneous applause.

Charles Bailyn, the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics, was pleased.

We love this,” Bailyn said. “From time to time, there are these events that bring us all together. This is at the top of the list.”


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