eclipse science

Typically, we host our “See it!” theme each Monday during our tour. But, there’s an important “see it” kind of event on a Monday coming up, well after the parks tour is done: the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Keep reading to understand more about eclipses and how to view them, but at the very end of this post is the punchline: We’ll have some solar viewing glasses to give out to Science in the Parks participants, each Monday (“See it!” day) of our tour.

At that time, many of you will be on the tail end of your summer breaks, and perhaps even more of you will be starting your first day of school. Also, here in Utah you will be just outside of the main eclipse event. But, in spite of this, there are still important things that you (and maybe your teacher and the rest of your class!) can pay attention to.

First, some background. The August 21 event is a “total solar eclipse.” This happens when, from your place on Earth, the Moon gets in the way of the Sun. Because our view of the Moon makes it look almost exactly the same width as the Sun*, the effect is to block out the Sun and all its light for your spot on Earth. The sky goes completely dark in the middle of the day! This could take place from anywhere between a few seconds to a couple of minutes, depending on where you are.

This all relies on that perfect alignment of the Moon and Sun, so it only happens at rare times and it only happens for specific locations on Earth, known as the eclipse path. This August’s eclipse is particularly rare for us in that it has such a long path across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina.



There are many good sources for maps and descriptions of the path, including:

You’ll notice that the total eclipse path does not include Utah. So, you have a couple of options. If you have the ability to head north, you can intercept that path. There’s lots of good information on various webpages, but you still have some planning to do. (Many of us have been planning on this for years, and reportedly campsites and hotels in the area are booked.) If you can leave early enough, you should be able to make a day trip out of the event, maybe even having multiple backup plans as you watch weather reports and cross your fingers for clear skies.**

If you can’t go somewhere in Idaho or Wyoming, though, you can still get a very good viewing of a partial eclipse from here in Utah. In Ogden, for example, you’ll be able to witness a partial eclipse that, at its peak, will cover 90% of the sun. The partial eclipse here in Ogden will last from around 10:15 AM to about 1:00 PM, so I’m hoping that there will be lots of teachers taking kids out to make observations, assuming that skies are clear. (You can get details for the eclipse timing at your exact location by using an interactive map like this one, but be aware that times for these maps are usually listed in “Universal Time,” or “UT,” which does not stand for Utah Time or any such thing. This is the time at the Prime Meridian, and our local Utah time is 6 hours behind that during the daylight savings shift.)

To see the Moon getting in the way of the Sun, you have a few options. But, before that you must be very aware: NEVER look at the Sun directly, even when there’s only a sliver of it from behind the Moon. You know that you spontaneously look away from the Sun when you accidentally point your gaze towards it, and this is for a very good reason. Do not ever try to circumvent this natural, protective reaction.

One more time: NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY at the surface of the Sun. Every other resource here will tell you exactly the same thing. I suppose it’s obvious, and it’s easy to abide by this warning, and you’d probably never even think of doing it, but we want to be perfectly clear. You will damage your eyesight by looking at the Sun.

The good news is that there are some indirect methods for viewing the Sun. First of all, there’s a way to make a pinhole projection. You’ve seen these even though you might never have realized it. Here’s a photo I took just the other day of sunlight coming through the branches and leaves of a tree:

Dappled sunlight is composed of round projections of the Sun through the gaps between a tree's leaves.

Dappled sunlight is composed of round projections of the Sun through the gaps between a tree’s leaves.

Notice how you get round circles of light? Each one of those is a projection of the Sun itself! When light goes through a narrow opening such as the small gaps between leaves, there’s a neat projection of light that exactly inverts the image of whatever the source of light may be, regardless of the shape of the hole. So, you see the image of the round Sun! You can do this deliberately and to good effect during a partial eclipse. Take a piece of card stock, cardboard, aluminum foil, or something similar and put a small hole in it, perhaps with the tip of a pencil, paper clip, or needle. Then, have the pinhole pointed toward the Sun, and on the other side have a piece of paper, a screen, or even the sidewalk. If your screen is in the shadow of your pinhole board (or in the shadow of something else, like the eave of a building or even in a box), you will be able to see the projection of the Sun. If you do this during the partial eclipse, you will see the Sun being “cut” into by the Moon, rather than seeing the completely round Sun. As the eclipse progresses, you’ll get to see this cutout change. To me, seeing one astronomical objects go in front of another is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed.***

Here is a set of instructions with photos for one version of this pinhole projection setup, courtesy of Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA. (They have lots of excellent resources for in and out of school educational activities — something I appreciate about our investments in NASA and JPL.) You can also do a similar projection with binoculars for a more magnified view; but, again, NEVER look through the binoculars at the Sun. (You’ll notice that all these sites are being very loud and clear about this.)

In addition to projections, many people use solar filters to look at the Sun. These are NOT sunglasses, but a very specialized filter material that will block out all but the very brightest light, such as the Sun’s. You can buy these from many of the vendors linked to some of the sites above, or from a planetarium, or even from some more general online and local retailers. With this filter, you can look straight at the Sun and see it as a perfectly orange orb. During the eclipse, you’ll see it get covered up by the Moon, bit by bit. This technique might be the most convenient, and it’s easy to have one pair of these glasses or other filter that can be shared between a few people to check on the progress of the eclipse over the span of a couple of hours.

A view of the Sun through appropriate solar filter. (It looks bigger when you're wearing the glasses. I just held the camera back to capture all the pieces.)

A view of the Sun through appropriate solar filter. (It looks bigger when you’re wearing the glasses. I just held the camera back to capture all the pieces.)

Here’s some extra good news: During “See it!” days (Mondays), we have been handing out “rainbow glasses” for kids to take home. We’ll continue to do this, but in addition we have some custom made Weber State solar glasses for anyone who can use them. You’ll have to take care of these until August 21 to use them for the eclipse, but you can also use them right away to try them out. We’re hoping that you’ll be able to use these in your backyard or even at school — and maybe teachers will also have some of these or other pinhole projections ready — so that everyone can enjoy the eclipse, even the partial eclipse viewable from here in Utah. Regardless of where you are or how you view the August 21, 2017 eclipse, I hope you witness and appreciate the wonder of the firsthand observation of a rare and marvelous astronomical display.

* You might be wondering about this and how the alignment and sizes work out exactly. The Moon is much closer to us than the Sun, but it’s also much smaller; so, the far-away-big-thing and the near-to-us-small-thing can look like they are the same size. It’s fun to look up these values and find ways to model this!

** I know of many scientists using multiple strategies, but most are going to be driving in the morning so they’re the most mobile. Some are headed to gatherings where they actually have to “work” in their astronomy roles. As for myself, I’ve planned something a little less dependable and am going to be hiking a few days into the mountains and get to a secluded pass in the backcountry — but I’ll be at the whim of nature and whatever weather pattern I get that morning.

*** I’ve seen a couple of partial eclipses like this, and I’ve seen Mercury and Venus in front of the Sun. These are right up there on my list of inspirational events, in between witnessing the birth of our children and seeing Eric Clapton play guitar.

Final Preparations

There’s a lot that’s happening behind the scenes as we get ready for the opening of Science in the Parks’ 2017 tour. On Monday we get to set out into the community, starting with Lester Park and continuing per our summer schedule (posted here). Basically, we just follow Arts in the Parks around Ogden, so you could plan a solid two weeks in one park and always have new things to experience.

Each year we learn a few new things. Recently, the team has been trying to perfect a new parachute mechanism for our water rockets, so we can watch well engineered, gentle landings after each dramatic launch. They’ve been trying out new ways of making musical instruments and other sound devices. They’ve got some new filters that kids can hold up and see how light of different colors will mix. And, a recent resupply mission had us loading 500 pounds of sand, gravel, and (of course) corn starch — all things that kids can get their hands in to see how materials pack, erode, and flow.

But maybe my favorite innovation was just realized today: we have decals on our 11-year-old trailer, so you can recognize us when we arrive or even when we’re crossing town. You may even be able to spot the decals on our rear gate and just follow us to the park.


As our season rolls along, we’ll create more frequent posts and updates, including some announcements, activities in the parks, and hopefully some “how-to” posts to describe some of what we’re doing. Stay tuned!

See you soon, making more science in a park near you!

2017 Summer Tour!

Have you been waiting? Are you eager for summer 2017? Need some more play and science in your life? We’re right there with you, so:

We’re delighted to announce our Summer Tour for 2017!

  • June 5-9, 2017 at Lester Park (663 24th Street, Ogden)
  • June 12-16, 2017 at Lorin Farr Park (769 Canyon Road, Ogden)
  • June 19-23, 2017 at 4th Street Park  (275 4th Street, Ogden)
  • June 26-30, 2017 at West Ogden Park (751 West 24th Street, Ogden)
  • July 5-7, 2017 at Monroe Park  (850 30th Street, Ogden)
    *Note: No lunch or science hosted on July 3-4.
  • July 10-14, 2017 at Mt. Ogden Park (3144 Taylor Avenue, Ogden)

All activities are free to all comers, hosted from approximately 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM, coinciding with Ogden School District’s free lunch program hosted at each of these parks. Each day of the week will celebrate a different theme and a different set of activities, and these will be cycled through at each park. We’ve teamed up with Arts in the Park again so that we follow them through town.

We’ll post more information more regularly as we get closer. Right now we’re assembling materials, putting together a team, detailing our staff schedules, and starting to recruit our volunteers. (Please contact Adam Johnston if you’re interested in volunteering possibilities.)


2017 Science in the Parks is “Go!” for launch.

back to school

Summer came and went, and now we’re all back in school. Some of our staff are starting their very first days as new teachers — and you’re all very lucky to have these people in your communities and working with your children for the long term. As for me, the director, I get to think about new waves of future scientists and teachers entering the labs and lecture halls this week, and what I might be able to do to get them to volunteer for Science in the Parks next summer. What I should be doing most immediately, though, is just figuring out what I’m doing in class tomorrow.

Still, when I flash back on what we get to do in the summer, I think I simply need to get my future teachers (and doctors and engineers and all the rest) to play. I think we all need to get our hands in the thick of it and get a feel for the pushes and pulls, the sounds and the colors of nature. So, a lot of what I think I need to do is simply get my university students doing the same kinds of things that our Science in the Parks friends were doing a few weeks ago.

Here’s a handful of some favorite images from the summer. Many more are in our 2016 photo album on Flickr, as well. Stay tuned. I’ll post more updates here about next year’s program, as well as some odds and ends in between.

sand and water

We cleaned up Science in the Parks today. I came home with specks of white powder all over my shirt from when I was taking out some garbage that included the remnant of a 50-pound bag of corn starch. I had a rainbow of food color staining my hands from washing out the bin with our elephant snot. We’d wiped off counters in the cave that we call our “parks room,” and items got reorganized and stowed. A list of items to replace for next year is written on the chalkboard, and I found a few additional bulbs and motors that we never got to pull out for this year. But there’s next year; and now that we have a clear work table again it feels a little more bittersweet that we have to wait until the summer of 2017.

(That said, it will also be nice to have a vacation before we gear up for classes that start in August.)

The program is a giant mess in so many ways. Having finished the tenth year, I know that “giant mess” was ever part of the explicit mission statement, but I don’t think it would be inappropriate, either. There’s a lot that we can do at parks that we can’t do in a classroom or a living room, at least not easily. Besides having the space that allows us to launch rockets and butterfly cups, no one is going to be upset if a little sand and water gets spilled on the grass.

For a few years, we’ve had some of the hardware to make erosion tables, but it wasn’t until this year that we were brave enough to do it. Misti, a soon-to-be science teacher in a local junior high, had the gumption to put together a system that was comprised of 50 pounds of sand and 10 gallons of recycling water, shared between four different troughs, a terrace of tables, and interconnecting tubes. From this, we not only have a way to shape the sand, but produce a dynamic and interactive display of erosion. We added palm trees, dinosaurs, cows, and a host of other figures to spice it up. The stakes are a little higher if there’s a possibility that Stegosaurus gets washed away.

Although we’ve had several new activities this summer — magnetic filings, x-ray imagery, ping-pong ball roller coasters, and more — the erosion table is my favorite new addition. Water spills everywhere and kids have sand and grit all over them, and yet no one complains. I’ve seen kids spend most of an hour just figuring out how to pile up sand, how the water interacts with it, and even how to make sure the plumbing continues to operate. The few times I’ve heard crying were only when it was time to leave. And, when we needed to put all of our sand back into our buckets, kids were happy to help us scoop it all out of the troughs by hand, one pile at a time.

The chair of the Department of Geosciences at Weber State stopped in one day to see how this was all working, and he ended up playing along with the kids in the mix of grit and water. (I don’t think that this is much different than his job as a researcher, except that his associates in the park were shorter.) Later, he stopped by to tell me how much he liked all of this and the program in general. We talked about how we each can trace back our own scientific curiosities to playing in a sandbox. For myself, I remember trying to figure out how high a mountain I could build, how deep of a cave I could dig, and how water would run down in rivulets and soak into the ground through the porous grains. I don’t remember anyone telling me what I should do with the sand or challenging me to make a deeper pond or a taller castle; I just had a shovel and started carving out my own world.

I think this is what I like about the sand and water in the parks. It isn’t just that it’s a sandbox that kids might not have at home, but because it’s a new world that they can create and re-create themselves. They can construct a dam and see how well it holds; or they can watch the water pour and form patterns on the other side. Or, sometimes, they just want to stack a bunch of sand and see how tall it can get. We’re fine with all that. Working alongside the kids, we can imagine: where will we build our shopping mall and where will we live and what happens when the dam breaks and why is this hose plugged? It’s play; and it’s science. These are two things that humans — and kids in particular — do especially well. It’s fun to realize that it only takes heroic amounts of sand and water to see this in action.