Chasing eclipses with Chicago's Adler Planetarium

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Monday, March 20, 2017

Will you become an eclipse chaser this August? Millions of people in the U.S. alone are expected to travel for this big event. // All images: Astronomy: Alison Klesman

2017 is the “Year of the Eclipse” at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. In preparation for the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, which will be visible across the United States, the Adler is opening a new temporary exhibit on Saturday, March 25, 2017: Chasing Eclipses.

Chasing Eclipses takes visitors through the history and science of solar eclipses and eclipse viewing, explaining how and why they occur and tracing the path the Moon’s shadow will cut across the U.S. in both 2017 and again in 2024. One of the exhibit’s most unique aspects is its immersive Eclipse Simulation Experience, which uses audiovisual and environmental effects to recreate the look and feel of standing in the 70-mile-wide path of totality as the Moon completely covers the Sun this August.

But Chasing Eclipses offers much more than science alone. There is a profoundly human touch to everything on display. Although I haven’t (yet) seen a total eclipse myself, everything I’ve heard and read has pointed to a singular understanding: Eclipse viewing is often an emotional and personal experience. Chasing Eclipses is ultimately about the eclipse chasers themselves, from dedicated astronomers to everyday people, who travel both far and near to stand in the Moon’s shadow for those precious few moments. This exhibit puts the hopes, motivations, and reactions of those who chase eclipses on display, capturing both the anticipation of the upcoming eclipse and the triumphs of past eclipses.

Don’t forget to look down during the Eclipse Simulation Experience — you’ll see the “pinhole” effect created by tree leaves as the Sun disappears.

Highlighting eclipse chasers also means highlighting the tools they use to understand, predict, chase, and record eclipses. The exhibit itself takes its name from a book written by Boston resident Rebecca R. Joslin and published in 1929, outlining her experiences chasing three total solar eclipses across the world in the early 1900s. A copy of the book will be on display, along with several other artifacts from the Adler’s impressive collection.

One of the earliest items is a copy of the Astronomicum Caesareum (dated 1540), a book of illustrations, tables, and even functional paper instruments, called volvelles, used to calculate the date and time of both lunar and solar eclipses. Visitors can also view the oldest known clockwork tellurian, a mechanical device that models the motions of the Sun-Earth-Moon system, and an eclipse path map produced by famous astronomer Edmond Halley in 1715. While such maps, which show the shadow of the Moon and outline the path totality will take, seem commonplace today, Halley’s was one of the first such maps created. His map was printed as a broadside and sold to the public, and included a request for observers with pendulum clocks to time the eclipse and send the results to Halley for compilation after the event. Halley used the information to produce a second, corrected map of the path of totality in 1715 after the fact, demonstrating the benefits of encouraging the public to become eclipse chasers and citizen scientists. These observations further improved Halley’s ability to predict the path of the next solar eclipse in 1724, which is also on display.

The Adler’s Community Design Lab (CDL), which shares space with the exhibit, is also embracing the eclipse theme this year. This fun and creative workshop provides visitors of all ages with plentiful materials and basic guidance to undertake projects such as the creation of pinhole projectors for indirect solar viewing and the assembly of solar filters to protect camera and cellphone lenses. The CDL is included with general admission to the planetarium, and focuses on encouraging visitors to explore and experience science with materials available right at home. Before I left, I had the opportunity to make my own pinhole projectors with some of the available materials, including foam, cardboard, Popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and plenty of glue and tape.

If you visit Chasing Eclipses, make sure to also stop by the Community Design Lab to create your own pinhole viewer or solar filter for the experience.

The last time Chicago was in the path of a total solar eclipse was 1806; the next time won’t be until 2099. This year, the eclipse as viewed from Chicago itself will reach only about 90 percent of totality, but that’s nothing to turn your nose up at, either. If you won’t be able to travel all the way to the path of totality on eclipse day, you may want to consider spending the eclipse with the Adler, instead. The planetarium will host viewing parties and activities in several Chicago locations, and all attendees will receive free pairs of eclipse glasses for a safe solar eclipse experience. You can find an eclipse countdown clock and more programming information at http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/events/total-solar-eclipse-2017-08-21/.

If you will be chasing the path of totality and find yourself in Carbondale, IL, for the big event, the Adler is teaming up with Southern Illinois University to host eclipse activities at the SIU football stadium in the “Eclipse Crossroads of America” — Carbondale is lucky enough to sit in the intersection of the paths for both 2017 and 2024 solar eclipse totality. You can find more information about the eclipse events in Carbondale here: http://eclipse.siu.edu/.

Chasing Eclipses opens to the public on March 25, 2017, and will run through January 8, 2018. Like the Adler’s other exhibitions, it’s included with general admission. You can find out more about the exhibit on the Adler Planetarium website: http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/events/chasing-eclipses-2017-03-25/.

Carbondale, IL, is smack-dab in the middle of the path of totality not only for 2017’s total eclipse (blue line), but for 2024’s as well (yellow line). The Adler Planetarium is eagerly preparing 2017 eclipse day activities for the Southern Illinois University campus. Chicago’s next total eclipse will be in 2099 (red line).

Tags: events
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