If you caught the solar eclipse, thank a scientist

Wednesday , August 30, 2017 - 4:00 AM

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

An article in last week’s Standard-Examiner reported that “experts indicate the difference between partial and total solar eclipse is night and day.” If you saw the total eclipse you didn’t need to be an expert to appreciate the difference. But we needed experts with specialized knowledge to know where and when to view the eclipse. Modern society depends a great deal on expertise.

The comments made by scientists and laypersons I spoke with were similar after the event. People talked about how emotional they felt. How small. How in awe. How surprised they were at their feelings. One physicist at Weber State noted to his daughter that he felt similarly only at the birth of his children. One friend only nodded in recalling his transcendence, recreating his speechlessness during the event. A colleague said it was impossible to describe to someone who wasn’t there.

At my viewing area above Rexburg, Idaho, the local environment changed during the eclipse. It got progressively colder — as much as 15 degrees — as the event got closer. At 99 percent totality, birds sang louder and then suddenly went quiet. Cows mooed and then headed to a stand of trees. A baby started crying at the exact moment of totality. A red and yellow sunset/sunrise was 360 degrees around us on every horizon. A black dot with what looked like glowing hair blocked a part of the sky where the sun had been only moments before.

An eclipse is an opportunity to do some serious science. John Sohl and his Weber State University physics students launched a balloon to measure temperatures at different altitudes. NASA examined the outer atmosphere of the sun — the corona — in a way that can’t be replicated by equipment. A 1919 eclipse helped prove Einstein’s theory of relativity showing how gravity could bend light. In 2017, NASA provided an app so everyone could participate and “citizen scientists” could add to the observations of what occurs during an eclipse.

For the most part, the mass of folks who headed north to Idaho relied on the predictions of the world’s scientists to get to the right place at the right time to see the eclipse. Those folks who didn’t drive but saw the partial eclipse used the right glasses to avoid damaging their eyes. The mass of people who were working, or who didn’t care, assumed the sun would reappear and life would continue. The event was a celebration because of people’s confidence in its extraordinary but, ultimately, understandable and predictable nature.

Such confidence in science didn’t always exist. Many people from many cultures have seen an eclipse as a bad omen. People promised to behave better, stop fighting or tried to scare away evil spirits to return the sun to its proper place. People from Native America to Cambodia shot burning arrows into the sky to relight the sun. Some Mesoamerican cultures felt obliged to conduct human sacrifices. Superstitions still exist — like one in Italy where flowers planted during an eclipse will be healthier — but few are apocalyptic.

During this eclipse, reports from across the country indicated that Americans were together. One commentator noted, “And for a moment, everyone in our nation stopped and looked up in the sky and forgot about hate.” Citizens trusted expert mathematicians to predict the timing and path of the eclipse, even if few could replicate their work. With all the agreement in this country it is curious, then, that so much skepticism of science currently exists in America.

We all depend on experts and their skills. Think about the expertise that went into everyday items such as aspirin, antibiotics and X-rays. What about your automobile — experts created the metals, plastics, fuels, computers and software. In fact, we all have some expertise, and people generally trust us to get it right.

The same scientific processes that led to everyday items around us, as well as to accurately predicting eclipses, have also informed our understanding of vaccines, genetics and climate change. Modern life depends on scientific experts. Their skills have been proven time and again. What they say is worth listening to because their expertise allows us to experience many important things, including a transcendent eclipse, at just the right time and in just the right place.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

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