Stony Brook Campus Celebrates Rare Solar Eclipse

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Eclipses are a phenomenon resulting from a coincidental match between the angular diameters of the sun and the moon. About every 18 months, somewhere on our planet, in a swath up to about 100 miles wide, the sun will appear to disappear, bit by bit, as it is blocked by the moon. 

On April 8, the Stony Brook University campus was alive and abuzz as several events celebrated the solar eclipse of 2024. In North America, a total solar eclipse was visible on a path from Mazatlan, Mexico, through the Canadian Maritimes. In the northeast, the path of totality hugged the southern shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario, and crossed Buffalo, Rochester, and Watertown, NY. In Stony Brook, the eclipse was at its fullest at 3:26 pm. About 90 percent of the sun was blocked, leaving behind a sliver about the size and shape of a 1.5 day-old moon, but much brighter.

Music blared on the SAC Plaza as students, faculty and staff were given solar eclipse glasses and enjoyed ice cream and snacks. Several food trucks were also on site.

“Solar eclipses must have been terrifying to early humans,” said Fred Walter, a galactic astronomer and a professor of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Anecdotally, the Chinese would pound drums and bang gongs to scare away the dragon eating the sun — and it always worked.” 

Walter said that by 2500 BCE, Chadean and Chinese astrologers could predict eclipses with reliable if not perfect accuracy, noting that there are stories of Chinese astrologers His and Ho who were beheaded for failing to predict an eclipse in 2134 BCE. 

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“The ability to predict natural events is an important step towards the development of science,” said Walter. “But superstition still prevailed. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, in 534 BCE an eclipse stopped a war between the Medes and the Lydians. Clearly the gods did not approve.”

Walter said that partial eclipses can be pedestrian and that you must travel to the centerline for the full experience. 

“If you don’t know there is an eclipse happening and you don’t look up, you might think a thin cloud has passed over the sun,” said Walter. “However, words do not do justice to a total solar eclipse — it must be experienced. Having the sun fade away and disappear for 3-4 minutes during midday is an other-worldly, almost religious experience. Unlike at dusk, the color of the illumination does not change. And if you are elevated, you may see the horizon around you still fully lit.”

The next total eclipse in the U.S. will occur in 2044. For Long Islanders, the next one will occur at sunrise on May 1, 2079. 

— Robert Emproto

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