Emily Rauscher is an associate professor in the LSA Department of Astronomy at the University of Michigan. She is also a theoretical astrophysicist who works with students in her lab to characterize the atmospheres of planets outside of our Solar System, or “exoplanets,” by creating 3-D models of their wind and temperature patterns.

With the date of the next solar eclipse quickly approaching, Rauscher shares her thoughts about why events like this one are important and why driving to the “path of totality” is totally worth it. 


LSA: What’s a solar eclipse, and why is it important? Actually, is it important?

Emily Rauscher: A solar eclipse happens when the Moon, in its orbit around the Earth, passes in between the Earth and the Sun and creates the right alignment so that the shadow from the Moon covers a spot on the Earth. Since the Earth is rotating, the shadow moves across the surface of the Earth. The regular orbit of the Moon means that solar eclipses happen a few times a year, but for any particular location, it can be a rare event. So, it’s exciting when it happens where we live. There are two ways someone on Earth might experience it. If they’re in the path of totality, they’re in the deepest part of the shadow and the Moon will completely block out the sun. If they’re outside the path of totality, they can get some of the shadow but will only see a partial eclipse.

Is the fact that this happens important? I think they’re more socially important than scientifically important. They’re well understood; we know why solar eclipses happen, and what’s happening when we see them. But it’s a special event because we can experience it together.


LSA: Is it worth driving to the “path of totality” to see the solar eclipse?

ER: Yes, it’s absolutely worth it. I’ve seen both a total and partial solar eclipse and, all pun intended, they’re “night and day” experiences. A partial solar eclipse is neat, but a total solar eclipse is awe-inspiring. When the Moon completely blocks out the Sun, what you’re left with is a somewhat terrifying but incredibly beautiful image in the sky: a black sphere surrounded by glowing, feathery light. The burning filament is the extended outer atmosphere of the Sun, called the Corona, and it’s too faint for us to see without a solar eclipse. A flaming crown around a blacked-out Sun—it’s incredible. If you’re in the path of totality, you can take off your glasses at that time. Personally, I will definitely be driving to Ohio. I think it’s worth my kid missing a day of school.



LSA: Speaking of glasses, how do I keep myself safe if I want to see the solar eclipse? What about my pets?

ER: The only danger of viewing the solar eclipse is the same as when the Sun shines on a regular day. Regardless of a solar eclipse, don’t look directly at the Sun. It’s too bright and it will harm your vision. This advice is more emphasized now only because you’re more tempted to look at the Sun when something like this is happening. Make sure to use specially made solar eclipse glasses, because normal sunglasses aren’t dark enough. Normal sunglasses wouldn’t protect you if you wanted to look at the Sun on a regular day, either. They’re only meant to protect you from the scattered sunlight when you’re outside. 

The solar eclipse glasses allow you to safely observe the chunk taken out of the Sun, but you can view the event in other fun, creative ways, too. You can poke a hole in a piece of paper and create a camera that way by raising it and lowering it above the ground to focus the image. The sunlight will go through the hole and cast a projection of the Sun on the ground. Or, if you’re under a tree, the leaves make natural holes for light to pass through and you can see patterns on the ground that way as well.

As far as keeping pets safe, no need to worry about them looking at the Sun. They’re smart. Probably smarter than us.


LSA: What might happen around me when a solar eclipse happens? Should I bring a jacket because of a change in weather or drop in temperature? 

ER: There’s conflicting information out there about what happens to our surroundings during a solar eclipse. Each solar eclipse is its own particular, special event, happening in a different part of the world, at different times of day, and in different seasons. So, it’s difficult to scientifically, rigorously evaluate trends. You might hear changes in birds and insects due to a change in sunlight, but you probably wouldn’t notice a temperature change. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t subtle differences happening in the high atmosphere.

You can expect, though, that if you travel to the path of totality to see the solar eclipse, it can look like dusk in every direction around you during totality. For a partial solar eclipse, you may not notice it’s that much different than a cloud blocking some light, the Sun. This is a good reminder that our experience of the solar eclipse will be controlled by the weather, to some degree. It’s all about the clouds. If it’s a clouded-over day, the solar eclipse won’t be very noticeable at all because we won’t see a big change in brightness. I’m not going to bother heading down to Ohio if there are clouds everywhere.



LSA: What will scientists be doing while the solar eclipse is happening? Are they looking for anything in particular?

ER: I think most scientists will just be enjoying it, because it’s fun and interesting. Like I mentioned earlier, we already know a lot about solar eclipses. I think some researchers may do experiments, like measuring things in the atmosphere to see what changes due to the shadow briefly blocking some of the sunshine that heats the atmosphere. Some may study animal behavior changes. But I think for most of us, we’re happy to just be humans that day.

Even if you can’t make it to Toledo or somewhere else along the path of totality, people in Ann Arbor can join LSA astronomers on the Diag on Monday, April 8, between 2 and 4:30 p.m. EDT to enjoy the event with the U-M community. Solar eclipse glasses provided, while supplies last!


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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