Siberia on a Clear Day
August 25, 2008
John Blackwell, Exeter's observatory director, never thought he'd get to Siberia. But this summer he did, traveling to Novosibirsk, Siberia's largest city and Russia's third largest, to witness the August 1 total eclipse of the sun. He wasn't alone – an estimated 10,000 astronomers and star lovers from around the world gathered in Novosibirsk to watch this rare event.
"Seeing a total solar eclipse will make you stop in awe," explains Blackwell, with palpable excitement. He will be sharing that awe with students and fellow astronomers through first-hand impressions and hundreds of images taken during the 2-minute, 20-second eclipse.
Clear Skies Just in Time
August 1t started out badly. Rain and winds exceeding 30 miles per hour pelted the sandy shore of the large Ob Reservoir, 20 miles south of Novosibirsk, where astronomers were positioned with telescopes and cameras. "There were white caps on the reservoir, the wind was so strong," says Blackwell. "We were on a promontory about 10 meters above the reservoir beach. Wind was coming off the water – hitting the cliff, and blowing sand and dirt into people and equipment."
Then, at about 3:45 p.m. local time, an hour before first contact (when the silhouette of the moon first "touches" the sun), the rain stopped. "It was suddenly crystal clear," explains Blackwell. The temperature dropped 15 degrees from its normal 70-degree level as the moon obscured the sun's light. "You could watch the animals and birds do their nighttime thing as darkness fell," explains Blackwell. "The view was remarkable. You could see nothing but darkness on the reservoir. It was a perfectly pitch-black moon." Blackwell was so stunned at the beauty of the eclipse, he "almost forgot to take pictures."
Extensive Astronomical Data for Classroom Use
"Students benefit tremendously from hearing about experiences like a total solar eclipse from a teacher," says Blackwell. "They get to hear why it's valuable to do field work."
They also benefit from the hundreds of large images of the eclipse. "We'll use the images to teach astronomy, orbital dynamics and image processing," explains Blackwell. "Students enjoy working with large pictures and large data sets. They can learn how angular distances change, how to calculate eclipse paths, how to figure the correlation between the magnetic field of the sun and what we see in the corona." Blackwell notes that the timing of this eclipse during the sun's cyclical calm period makes it easy to see the sun's magnetic field in the images, thus providing excellent pictures for classroom use.
"Being in the Right Place at the Right Time"
Blackwell started planning the research trip in May 2007. He scouted out the best location by checking historic weather patterns across the sparsely populated path of the eclipse, which started in far northern Canada, traveled through Greenland and the Arctic, Siberia and Mongolia, ending in northern China. Novosibirsk had a high probability of clear August skies. It provided one of the longest land-based eclipse paths. Plus, it boasted amenities – easy access from Europe and Asia, and some hotels.
After the eclipse, Blackwell learned that he had been lucky at Ob Reservoir. Other sites outside Novosibirsk continued to have rain all day, obscuring the view. "Sometimes science is about being in the right place at the right time," he explains.
Blackwell had initially hoped to take students on the trip, but found that the preparations – including visas and multiple inoculations – and risks inherent in traveling to such far-flung climes made this impractical.
What was Blackwell's biggest surprise? "How open and willing to talk the Russian people are," he says. "They talked about their culture and their current situation. They show humor about their politics now. They have a wonderful sense of cultural and national pride."
The cleanliness also struck him. "It was outstanding. There were no cans on the side of the road – they pick everything up." And then there was the food. "My most interesting meal was a breakfast of pickled herring, beef aspic, black bread and tea. The aspic had beef slivers and fresh red currants. It was delicious!"
In preparation for the trip, Blackwell audited three terms of Russian, taught by Exeter's modern languages instructor, Inna Sysevich. The experience of sitting with Exeter students, as a student, "was wonderful." "It really empowered the kids," he explains. "A teacher wasn't a teacher anymore. I was one of them! I would do it again in a heartbeat."
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