As solar eclipse nears, humble astronomers become rock stars

August 20th, 2017 by Adam Tamburin

As the nation awaits the once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse on Monday, a small, often soft-spoken group has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity.

Astronomers.

The scientists have been been in high demand as excitement mounts for the eclipse, which will cut a path of totality from coast to coast.

Some of the calls have been from the usual suspects: schools, rotary clubs and libraries. But they've also come from a bar on Lower Broadway in Nashville, a boutique hotel and Oregon wineries.

Janet Ivey, host of the Nashville science education TV show Janet’s Planet, has used her connections with the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, NASA and other organizations to link astronomers with events in the run-up to the eclipse.

The interest has been, well, astronomical.

"The solar eclipse is science’s Christmas and Super Bowl all wrapped up into one,” Ivey said.

Ivey linked Vanderbilt astronomer and physics professor Keivan Stassun with Acme Feed & Seed. He'll be emceeing the party there on Monday.

Stassun's role will be part in-house expert, part hype man.

"It's certainly an amazing event for me as a scientist," he said. "I’ll be getting people pumped up about what they’re about to experience."
Nashville's Kimpton Aertson Hotel booked an out-of-state astronomer to be on hand for a series of private events for guests over the weekend and on Monday.

Mark Hayes, the general manager, said the hotel wanted to add some educational value to the events "so it's not all just bottle service and just alcohol flowing."

Astronomers seem more than willing to boost understanding and appreciation for an event that hasn't been seen in Nashville for more than 400 years.

Stassun and his Vanderbilt colleagues have been criss-crossing Middle Tennessee at a feverish pace for the past few weeks. Professors, graduate students and postdocs have joined forces to reach as many people as possible.

Just this week, they have talked to every student Martin Luther King Junior Magnet High School, 700 students at Lipscomb Academy and 800 students at a McMinnville junior high school.

"I have to confess that it's nice to feel like I'm trending, at least for a little while," Stassun said. "People love the stars but usually aren't so interested in those of us who study them for a living."
The grueling schedule has kept David Weintraub, the astronomy department chair at Vanderbilt, away from his office for two weeks. He hasn't had the energy to walk the dog or mow the lawn.

But he said he was eager to help people take full advantage of a "spectacular, major, incredible" event.

Most of the outreach Weintraub and his colleagues have participated is free — they haven't charged schools and community groups.

He's getting about $500 to give two talks to a group visiting Nashville with Sky and Telescope magazine this weekend, but he said that wasn't a big payday based on the time it took to put the talks together.

Weintraub said he had fielded "many dozens of requests for eclipse day," but he's turned them all down.

“I don’t want to be an entertainer. I just want to enjoy it," Weintraub said. “If we get good weather it should be truly spectacular, really a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing.”

Interest across the country follows path of totality

To be sure, the interest stretches well beyond Nashville. In Oregon, where the path of totality crosses over Oregon State University, astronomers have participated in well over 100 events related to the eclipse.

Randall Milstein, an OSU professor and the astronomer in residence for the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium, said that stood in stark contrast to his normal schedule.

Normally, he said, he'd give three such talks a year.

His friends have compared him to a "rock star," but he has a more muted reaction, one that was typical of the Vanderbilt astronomers as well: “I feel that that’s my job.”

Milstein saw a profound significance in the widespread interest in the eclipse. It is a peaceful way to unite a nation.

“It’s a natural phenomenon that is not noisy, it is not violent," he said. “We witness this and it links us with everyone as a common thread throughout humanity.”

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