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The Broader View of the Eclipse

Aug 16, 2017

by Daniel Lowry

When MCTC astronomy and physics teacher Scott Miller first heard about the total solar eclipse that would cut a path across Kentucky in the afternoon of August 21, 2017, it was the early 1990’s and he was excited. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, he’s like a kid on Christmas morning.  Scott Miller on campus

“I can’t wait,” he says. “Here is this amazing event, and it’s happening in my backyard, basically.”

Miller will participate in a viewing event in Hopkinsville, which is directly in the path of totality, where the moon’s direct shadow, the umbra, which is about 70 miles wide, will fall across part of Kentucky. The shadow will slant diagonally across the United States, moving from the northwest to the southeast at a clip of about 2,000 miles per hour. Starting at 1:24:41 local time, it will last for two minutes and 40 seconds in Hopkinsville. 

Miller says during the eclipse, it will get darker across much of the United States when the penumbra, a larger and fainter shadow creates a “partial eclipse.” He says in Maysville, for example, the eclipse, which will be the darkest at 2:31 EST, will be at 92 percent, compared to 100 percent in the Hopkinsville area.

“The difference will be like night and day,” he says. “Here in Maysville, for example, it will get noticeably darker, but in the path of the total eclipse in Hopkinsville, you’ll be able to see stars like you would at night. The temperature will drop about 20 degrees for those two minutes.”

Miller explains that an eclipse happens when the moon lines up right between the sun and Earth. The moon is about 400 times smaller than the sun, but because the sun is about 400 times farther away, the moon ends up looking the same size as the sun and blocking it out. Total solar eclipse

“It’s all about angles,” Miller says. “It’s rare. The last partial one in Kentucky was back on May 10, 1994, and the last total eclipse in the U.S. was in 1979. But there’s good news because we have another one coming in Kentucky on April 8, 2024.”

Millions of people are expected to travel into areas where they can witness the total eclipse. State transportation officials are expecting severe traffic backups and are concerned that drivers will pull over and watch it. They’re urging drivers not to stop on the roadways. At least nine public school systems are cancelling classes on Aug. 21, with some citing safety concerns.

Eye safety is an issue, too, Miller explains. “Don’t look at the eclipse directly.” He warns that even recording the eclipse with your cell phone may damage your phone’s camera. Doctors say sunglasses aren’t enough, either, and caution that our retinas don’t feel pain, so our eyes can be damaged before we know it.

“You can use projection devices, special glasses, and other ways to see it safely,” he says. Miller holds up a mirror that he’s covered with paper except for a hole the size of a dime. “You can hold something like this and reflect the sun onto the wall of a building, and see the circle of light that is the sun and watch the eclipse in a safe way.” Courtesy: NASA

On the day of the eclipse, Miller will host an outdoor interactive demonstration at Hopkinsville Community College. He’ll take visitors on a tour of relative distances between planets, showing the scale of our solar system using landmarks and stakes in the ground.

“Astronomy gives us perspective,” he says. “We, as a lifeform, are on this lonely location in the universe, and maybe we need to learn how to make sure we stay safe together. Petty arguments don’t mean as much if you can take a step back in the context of a much larger world.”

Miller says an eclipse is something you’ll never forget. He remembers the last one he experienced back in 1979, which was a partial one.

“I looked down in the shadows of a maple tree, and all the leaves acted like pinhole cameras. Under the tree were all these smiley faces made of light, or that little part of the sun that was showing from behind the moon.”

Miller hopes the eclipse helps grow excitement in science. “I know for me, astronomy has given me a broader view on life.” He hopes for something else, too. “For one afternoon, millions of people in America will be participating in the same event, all as a country together. If we can do that, over something happening just because of the way the sun and moon line up, maybe we can work together on other things that really matter for all of us.” 

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If you’d like to contact Professor Miller with questions about the eclipse or astronomy, email him at jscott.miller@kctcs.edu.

Visit www.eclipseville.com for Hopkinsville's website on the eclipse. 

Learn more from WKYT's dedicated eclipse page.