How to Be a Two-Minute Scientist on Eclipse Day

With the first total eclipse over the U.S. since smartphones became ubiquitous, amateur researchers will be participating along with the pros.

A bird passes in front of a partial solar eclipse over New Zealand in 2011.

The solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21 in a band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina is going to offer more than just a spectacular view. Blocking out the light and heat of our local star at midday offers unique opportunities for some serious science, and not just for professionals. The large number of people expected to see it—12 million Americans already live in the path of totality, and millions more are traveling to it—and the ready availability of 21st century technologies offer opportunities for amateurs to make a contribution.

Elise Ricard, who supervises public programs at the California Academy of Sciences, got the chance to see a solar eclipse in Australia in 2012. She noticed that when totality hit, the birds stopped singing. That inspired her to create a project using the academy’s iNaturalist app, which allows the public to contribute to the study of biodiversity by documenting plants and animals. Life Responds asks eclipse viewers to document how animals react to the eclipse. It will not be the first such citizen science project—during a 2010 eclipse, a project in India called EclipseWatch had 140 people monitor cats, dogs, lizards, bats, and birds. But Life Responds could well be the largest and best equipped effort of its kind, says Ricard, who will be watching the 2017 eclipse immersed in nature along the Willamette River in Oregon. “[The Indian project] was a very small sample size, and it was before iPhones were in everybody’s pocket.” The raw data and a summary of the results will be posted on the Life Responds and iNaturalist websites.

The Eclipse Megamovie, a partnership between Google and the University of California at Berkeley, plans to collect images from more than 1,000 DSLR-equipped photographers (register here) and stitch them together to make a continuous movie of the eclipse as it passes over the country, backed up with location data and images from viewers who download the smartphone app (GooglePlay; iOS coming soon). You’ll be able to enjoy the first cut of the movie on their website mere hours after the eclipse ends on August 21. They also want to create a public archive of images of the sun’s corona, which we get a unique glimpse of during totality, says Hugh Hudson, an astronomer at Berekely and the University of Glasgow in the U.K., who will be watching the eclipse from Corvallis, Oregon. “Measuring the sun this way has never been done systematically,” he says. “Smartphones let you do that because they have GPS-precise location and timing.”

The EclipseMob project isn’t as concerned with that awe-inspiring view of totality. This experiment, run by George Mason University in Virginia and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, will study how radio waves travel through the ionosphere during the eclipse. Normally, the sun’s rays ionize the upper layers of the atmosphere, which causes the air to more easily absorb low-frequency waves—radio waves—before they reach a receiver. At nighttime, radio waves bounce off the ionosphere more readily—this is why you can pull in distant AM stations at night. During an eclipse the transition to a more reflective ionosphere happens almost instantaneously, much faster than at sunset, says Jill Nelson, an electrical engineering professor at George Mason who researches signal processing. So EclipseMob is using transmitters in Colorado and California that will broadcast signals during the August 21 event. People interested in participating can download at their website a list of instructions and parts to build a special receiver that connects to a smartphone to pick up those signals and record the changes in signal strength as the eclipse happens. The team hopes to use this crowdsourced data, Nelson says, “to better understand why particular radio wave behaviors have been observed during previous eclipse events. And that knowledge could help people understand how to take advantage of long-distance propagation in the future.”

There are many other crowdsourcing eclipse projects out there. The long-running Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program has a free app for measuring temperature and making cloud observations. The Quantum Weather Project at Saint Louis University is looking for people to take pictures and video of the shadow bands that appear on the ground during the eclipse.

Find whatever project gets your inner eclipse scientist excited on the NASA, American Association for the Advancement of Science and Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation organization websites, which all list various citizen science projects to suit your interests. If you just want to experiment yourself, there are plenty of solo science projects to be found. Bill Gottesman of the North American Sundial Society has created a cardboard pinhole camera project where you can use the movement of the crescent sun in a partial eclipse to tell time. Or you can pretend to be Sir Arthur Eddington, who performed the first experiment to prove Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity during the 1919 eclipse. Follow instructions at Sky & Telescope or NASA, and watch how light follows the curvature in space created by the sun’s mass.

The ubiquity of smartphones for making measurements with GPS-enabled accuracy, plus the large numbers of amateurs who will be watching, means this summer’s eclipse could just be the beginning of a new golden age for citizen science. The next solar eclipse over the U.S. is in 2024, after all, and increased public participation could be a big deal for the larger scientific project. “I am realizing how huge it is in terms of connecting people to why science is important,” EclipseMob’s Nelson says. “If we don’t understand how things work, then we can’t understand how to use them and make them better.”

Read more of our 2017 eclipse coverage.

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