(Yes, this took a while to write and post… in part because of the path of transition from Washington, DC back to Lafayette, IN. That’s part of the story. Happy Equinox! –BSC)
As I return from the National Space Grant Directors meeting, I am reminded strongly of the total solar eclipse on August 21, as well as how unique events can change one’s perspective in ways that cannot be fully undone. I have gotten to explore this a great deal myself, but one of the insights of this week’s meeting was watching and talking to one of my colleagues who was the emotional and operational leader of the national Space Grant Eclipse effort. More about this after a bit of a dream sequence retrospective.
Four weeks ago, I wrote the below comments, not quite knowing how to finish the entry or find the right pictures.
What a transition this is turning out to be. On Friday, I was still in Washington, meeting with colleagues at the State Department, and the Embassy of Japan, on science and technology innovation topics and global health strategy. Some packing, some sleep, and then by Saturday evening, I was off. Driving at night, sleeping for a couple of hours in West Virginia, and then arriving at the Evansville Museum about 2:00 (Central time) Sunday afternoon. Very quickly, I could tell the shift in my interactions and response, talking with the student research balloon team from the University of Southern Indiana, or USI. (I continue to have great appreciation for Glen Kissel, who has become a fantastic advocate for NASA and student education in his role as Affiliate Director at USI.) After an early bedtime, I was up and at the Museum again this morning at 6:20, to get on the bus for the tour to the path of the total solar eclipse in Hopkinsville, KY. We could not have asked for a better day so far: light breezes, and only the highest and wispiest of clouds an hour before the start of the eclipse. I have some extra time to start this entry this morning before the eclipse start; more will come later, after it’s all done. In the meantime, a scientific, spiritual, transforming experience.
Figure 1. Image of totality from Hopkinsville, from local media.
I noticed that, whether it is about science, or about statecraft, my role as translator and ambassador continues. Wearing NASA-themed clothing is pretty much a guarantee of such interactions at an event like this, with the expectation that I will be able and willing to answer questions. This is what happened, with a media interview for a Nashville metro radio group, brief interactions with a variety of visitors and even members of the NASA family (children of William Wagner, a former NASA solar physics director, who used to chase total eclipses for work).
Figure 2. This is the experience I came for.
A truly unexpected surprise involved a conversation with another MIT Humanities alumnus, who asked me about Japan’s policies for energy generation. (No, I was unable to explain Japanese domestic political positions on this issue.) I was asked for career advice for an 11 year old who wants to be an astrophysicist. A particular major? Which subjects / courses to take? No, my answer, in a setting like this, is much easier – and yet, much more challenging:
“Don’t let anyone talk you out of curiosity and passion.”
As we drive back, just a census of the license plates points to what that means. Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, of course. Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania? Check. But at the event, the census was much broader: California; Czech Republic; Hong Kong; Switzerland. What would drive someone to travel the world to experience totality in a small Midwestern town? I met someone at the hotel last night, who started planning his family trip over five years ago; he made his hotel reservation well before the hotel was finished construction. If those are not the expressions of people transforming their passion into experience, I don’t know what is.
What was it to be in the path of totality? The need for sunglasses dissipates; the air cools, and then the breeze picks up. A couple of planets, bright lights in the nighttime sky, appear in their courses. Within a few seconds of the alignment, one begins to notice a “360 degree sunset” of red and purple, combined with the downward illumination of the clouds in the distance. (We were extremely fortunate, that the sun was not obscured by clouds during the entire eclipse.) I will not even try to describe my internal experience of totality. I can only say that I feel it a tremendous gift to actually be able to experience it, in the context of my life of research and education and engagement.
Figure 3. Being in the umbra: “sunset” everywhere
Tomorrow, I go to work again… back on campus, with lectures on defining and scoping systems for engineering solutions. New students, new project efforts, new experiences to consider and curiosity to pursue: what new paths are out there?
Back to September…
Not surprisingly, a lot of the Space Grant discussion highlighted the Eclipse event, and for good reason. It was a “Really Big Deal.” By several estimates, this was one of the most experienced digital events over this decade: the largest government and NASA digital event ever, and a total audience in the range of that for a Super Bowl… for a STEM activity. That is literally a national and international experience of space science in your life. The person who put Space Grant in the middle of this path was another Space Grant Director, Angela Des Jardins, a self-proclaimed introvert who became a primary face of the Great American Eclipse. The Space Grant meeting was really her moment, the culmination of five years of dreaming and doing, now done. I found my response to her moment enlightening as well. I could see how others demonstrated their appreciation, and their expression of being affected and influenced by her actions. I remember how she started on this event planning, never imagining what outcomes would result from a dream expressed and passion pursued. Do I really need my own eclipse? Well, one can make the point that this eclipse was not of Angela’s making, and by the time the film crews appeared, she was as much a product of the experience as a cause. There is nothing wrong with that, and even if the outcomes of my experience or presence is not always as tremendous or profound, there are outcomes that I do not see, and those outcomes can be important for any number of people. We all cross a number of paths, and I don’t always integrate the number of paths that I do traverse and tangent. These are great reminders.