On a cold February morning in 1979, a massive crowd gathered on a remote hill in Washington State to watch the day suddenly descend into darkness. For several seconds, no one spoke.
“It’s eerie; it’s getting black here. Darkness at noon,” ABC News Correspondent Jules Bergman said during live coverage of the total solar eclipse. “People are hushed in what seems almost like a ritual thing that mankind has been silenced by, in awe, since the beginning of civilization.”
The tens of thousands of revelers had traveled from across the world to the town of Goldendale, Washington, to get the best view of the last total solar eclipse of the century. The small community, unknown to the majority of the planet, offered the ideal spot for these visitors because it was near the eclipse’s center of total darkness and it was the only place in the eclipse’s path to have a large telescope and observatory.
“This is just the most exciting thing I think I’ve ever participated in,” ABC News Correspondent Ron Miller said when the moon covered the sun. “I can’t tell you how lucky we are.”
The next total eclipse will take place two years from today, on Aug. 21, 2017, and the ideal place to witness this extraordinary celestial event will be in Clarksville, Tennessee. That’s because the city will go dark for about two minutes and 20 seconds, and it is the only place near the centerline of the eclipse with a significant astronomy program. In Clarksville, Austin Peay State University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy has an observatory with a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope, featuring the same optical design as NASA’s Hubble Telescope, and a respected faculty eager to help visitors get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime event.
“I’m estimating we will have 200,000 people in Clarksville that day, over and above the regular population,” Dr. Allyn Smith, APSU professor of physics, said.
NASA has already contacted APSU about setting up a live feed at the University’s observatory to give viewers across the country an opportunity to see the eclipse, but area hotels are already booking rooms for people keen on witnessing the event with their own eyes. With such a large crowd expected for the eclipse, APSU is working to provide them a memorable experience.
Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, with his thinning hair and spectacles, didn’t look much like an adventurer, but in 1919, the Cambridge-educated physicist traveled to the Isle of Principe off of West Africa. The Royal Astronomical Society sent him on an expedition to the distant island to witness a total eclipse and make the first test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Principe was deemed one of the best places in the world to view the solar event.
That steamy morning in 1919, as the sky darkened, Eddington and his fellow scientists busied themselves with their experiment.
"We have no time to snatch a glance at it,” Eddington wrote in his book, “Space, Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory.” “We are only conscious of the weird half-light of the landscape and the hush of nature, broken by the calls of the observers, and beat of the metronome ticking out the 302 seconds of totality.”
The experiment was a success, confirming Einstein’s theory, and in 2017, the APSU Department of Physics and Astronomy will use its fortunate position in regards to the solar eclipse to recreate Eddington’s experiment. Dr. Spencer Buckner, APSU associate professor of physics, said the University is buying equipment, and his astrophotography classes will use the next two years to develop a process for the experiment.
In 2009, the Royal Astronomical Society sent another expedition to Principe to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the experiment that, according to the BBC, “profoundly changed the way we view the Universe.” That trip was largely a celebratory and educational event because another solar eclipse wasn’t going to occur over the island that May. APSU’s 2017 experiment, 98 years after Eddington’s expedition, will give scientists the rare opportunity to recreate this famous test.
The University will also spend the next two years training students and other astronomy enthusiasts on equipment so they can help guide visitors in Clarksville that summer.
“We want to get with the Clarksville Astronomy Club and Del Square Psi, the student physics club, and get them trained, make sure they have equipment, and then disperse them to parks and places around town,” Smith said. “We’re trying to keep the observatory to the more professional community. We’ll probably have two or three universities that will want to come in and set stuff up.”
The center of the eclipse, with maximum totality of darkness, is actually about 20 miles north of the University, but that location will only remain dark for about 10 more seconds than Clarksville.
“But to the south, the difference between Clarksville and northern Davidson County (Nashville) is about a minute of darkness,” Buckner said. The majority of Davidson County won’t witness a total solar eclipse.
Because of Austin Peay’s fortunate location, the physics and astronomy department is using this opportunity to educate area school children.
“We are developing workshops for local teachers,” Dr. Alex King, chair of the APSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, said. “It’s going to be a day workshop—one next summer and one the summer of 2017—giving them in-service credits.”
In addition to working with local teachers, the department is looking at providing special eclipse glasses to all school children in the Clarksville-Montgomery County area and surrounding counties.
APSU Physics and Astronomy Department
Located at APSU, 40 miles north of Nashville, the Department of Physics and Astronomy has produced three Goldwater Scholars in recent years, and the department’s students have conducted research, as undergraduates, at places such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Geneva laboratory, also known as CERN, a glass productions lab in the Czech Republic and at Fermilab – the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratory. In 2013, APSU student Mees Fix discovered a quasar while working with his professor, Dr. Smith, at Fermilab.
The department’s facilities include a $500,000, NASA-funded Materials Fabrication and Characterization Lab, the APSU Observatory, the Sears Planetarium and a computational physics research lab. The department is a member of the WIYN 0.9m Consortium at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.
In 2007, APSU became the site for Tennessee’s first Governor's School in Computational Physics. The highly competitive program is geared toward hardworking high school sophomores and juniors with an interest in engineering, mathematics and science, and allows them to earn seven hours of college credit.
For more information, visit the department’s website at http://www.apsu.edu/physics