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Dr. Doug Duncan is kind of a big deal when it comes to eclipses.
He’s the director of the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado Boulder and has degrees from Caltech and the University of California, so he obviously knows space.
But beyond that, he leads trips to watch solar eclipses around the world – and he’ll be in Jackson, Wyoming for the August 21, 2017 eclipse.
He’s been very in demand ahead of what’s been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, but he took a few moments to chat with 9NEWS. You can read a Q&A from our interview below.
Note: Some of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
9NEWS: How many eclipses have you seen at this point?
Duncan: So this will be number 11, I believe. The first one was March 7, 1970, when two friends and I jumped in a VW bug and drove to Oaxaca, Mexico – outside of Oaxaca in a little village. It took five days to get there, and the eclipse lasted three minutes and 20 seconds – and it was awesome.
You’ve seen a lot of these! Do you ever become jaded to eclipses, or do they just sort of stay cool?
The experience of a total eclipse is so powerful and so beautiful and so unearthly that no, you don’t get tired of it. If you see one, instead of saying ‘oh, I’ve seen one,’ a lot of people say ‘I’ve gotta see that again!’ It’s only two, or three, or four minutes, but I gotta see another one. That’s why I lead people all over the world chasing eclipses, because somewhere in the world, there’s a total eclipse about every two years, so if you stay put here in Colorado, you might have to wait, you know, a century for it to come right back to where you are, and in fact, it isn’t hitting Colorado as a total eclipse, it’s hitting Wyoming and Nebraska.
I encourage people to, if you possibly can, go to Wyoming on Monday, August 21.
What’s it going to look like in Denver, because I see we have like, a 93 percent eclipses or something close to it?
So it’s very surprising when you have a 90 percent eclipse, or a 95 percent eclipse, like in Denver, like in Boulder, like in the Front Range, like all of Colorado, it’s surprising because, even when only 5 percent is still visible, it’s so powerful that the sky doesn’t get dark.
Five percent of the sun I think is about 10,000 full moons. So it isn’t going to get dark. It will get a little bit weird, but the thing that you remember your whole life is a total eclipse.
A partial eclipse of the sun is really interesting, so if you’re going to be in Colorado, get a pair of these special, very dark eclipse glasses, put them on, and you’ll be able to look at the sun and see little by little by little the moon is eating the sun until all that’s left is a little crescent, but it’s not gonna get dark, and you’re not going to see the pink flames at the edges of the sun, and the big silver streamers of the sun’s corona that you would see if you’re up where the eclipse is total up in Wyoming.
So a partial eclipse isn’t as cool?
Kind of a rough way to explain the difference between a total eclipse and a partial eclipse: partial eclipse is like listening to your favorite music with earbuds, and we love to do that, we love to listen to music and it’s great. But, a total eclipse is like someone gave you a ticket to the live concert and you’re right in front of the stage. That is a completely different experience, and if you’ve ever gotten tickets to right in front of the stage for your favorite music, you’re going to remember that a very, very long time. More than just listening with earbuds. And it’s the same way. A partial eclipse is really cool but a total eclipse is mind-blowing and no one ever forgets it.
You talk to people about eclipses a lot. What’s something that just sort of makes you shake your head?
A lot of people have asked me 'is there dangerous radiation on eclipse day?' And the answer is 'yes! It's called sunlight, ok!' It's there today. Sunlight is pretty dangerous, if you were to stare that the sun with your eyes unprotected and did that for several seconds, you would go blind. I don't know anybody who stares at the sun. And the message is that on eclipse day, even 20 or 10 percent of the sun is still visible, it's still dangerous enough with the sunlight to hurt your eyes. It's not some kind of new radiation that's only on eclipse day. It's sunlight.
So what’s the deal with animals during the eclipse?
So animals, if they’re around where you are at a total eclipse kind of freak out. It’s so weird when the sun goes away and there’s a black hole in the sky where the sun should be and pink flames and silver streamers and so it’s well known that cows start to march for the barn if they’re used to going to a barn at night, when the eclipse happens, it’s like night, so they march for three minutes, then it gets light, then they turn around and they march back.
When I was in Bolivia for a total eclipse, we're all looking up at the total eclipse, and one woman shouts 'look down, look down!' We look down, we're surrounded by llamas and I don't know where they came from. When the three minutes of totality kind of was over, the llamas kind of got in a line and they marched away.
The weirdest animal response was in the Galapagos, because about five minutes before totality, just when it’s starting to get dark, every whale and dolphin in the vicinity surfaced. They swam back and forth, they watched the eclipse with us, when the eclipse was done, they swam away. The other 10 days we were in the Galapagos, we didn’t see them, so clearly they were looking to see what weird thing was happening that day of the total eclipse.
You’ve talked to the media about the eclipse a lot. What’s one thing you haven’t been asked about that you want to talk about?
Maybe the most important eclipse ever, scientifically, was 1918 when we first saw direct evidence that space can bend. Nowadays everybody’s heard of black holes, a place where space is completely curved, and a region of space separates itself from the rest of the universe, and if you fall into a black hole, you can never come back out.
Well nowaways that’s kind of known but Einstein said space could bend, everyone said ‘huh?! That is so strange, could it be true? And so astronomers realized that if you saw starlight coming to the earth but it passed the sun, it would bend.
Imagine a laser shot right through you in the 9NEWS audience and it bends because space could bend, well the sun could do that because of all its mass, so astronomers went out when there was an eclipse when the sun was there but the moon blocked it, so you could see the stars and you measured the position of starlight so that was the first proof way before we discovered black holes that Einstein was right … space can actually bend.”
Tell us about the eclipse in 15 seconds
So, a partial eclipse is really interesting – most of the sun’s gonna go away, get safe eclipse watching glasses, it takes a couple hours for the moon to slowly move across the sun, but if you can drive to where the eclipse is total, you will never forget that your whole life. [It’s a] black hole in the sky where the sun should be, pink flames, prominences all around, big silver streamers of the sun’s corona, people screaming and shouting and applauding, animals doing weird things, the total eclipse you’ll never forget your whole life, so if you can do it, get in the car, drive to Wyoming, probably not the morning of the eclipse, because a lot of people in Denver will be on I-25. Go on Sunday, the day before, see the wonderful eclipse, you will not regret it.
Editor’s note: This was a little longer than 15 seconds, but hey, eclipses are cool!
When’s the next eclipse? What if you want miss this and want to see one again?
Since there’s an eclipse some place in the world every two years, I chase ‘em. If you want to chase eclipses with me, send me an email. This one’s in Wyoming, that’s easy. 2012 we went to China chasing the total eclipse. Where’s the next one? Tahiti and Chile. So we’re either going to go out to the south seas or we’re gonna go to South America and of course, we’ll even chase the next one.
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