PHILIPSBURG–University of St. Martin (USM) Geology lecturer Lisa Davis-Burnett wants everyone to be safe when watching the solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, and has offered some safety tips for anyone who wants to watch this rare spectacle.
“The most important thing about the eclipse is to be safe,” Davis-Burnett told The Daily Herald. “When the moon starts to cover the sun on Monday, it will be tempting to look up at it, but it’s very dangerous for your eyes. Normally the sun is so bright we can’t look directly at it, but during the eclipse the brightness is diminished, but the damaging rays are still coming at your eyes.”
She urges persons to use approved protective solar glasses or a welding mask to look at the eclipse as normal sunglasses will not protect one’s eyes. Solar glasses are available at, amongst other places, Blue Point and are inexpensive.
The other option, she said, is to make a pinhole camera, which she says is easy, but quickly added that the image from this is not very satisfying. She said, however, that this is “still a fun project to do with a child. Instructions on how to make a pinhole camera are all over the internet, but simply put, you only need two pieces of stiff paper, one with a small hole in it. You hold the papers up and the light from the eclipse goes through the hole and is projected on the other paper.”
Davis-Burnett said most of the information online about solar eclipses has been dedicated to North America, where a certain swath of the United States will achieve 100 per cent blockage of the sun by the moon. “Unfortunately, we won’t have that but we will have 84 per cent coverage, which is quite significant.”
The date of the eclipse is August 21. The moon will begin to cover the sun at around 2:18pm. As it slowly moves in front of the sun at that time the sky will begin to darken. Maximum coverage will be at 3:38pm, at that time only 16 per cent of the normal sunlight will be available. “It will be as if you are in a dark room with only one lamp and someone walks in front of the lamp, this is the solar eclipse. As the moon crosses and moves away the normal sunlight will re-appear. The eclipse will end for us on St. Maarten at 4:49pm.”
She said persons can watch the eclipse, anywhere with a clear view of the sky. “This is a moment in time when the solar system reveals itself, specifically the geometry of the earth-moon-sun relationship. It’s a beautiful aspect of living on this planet. It’s only a coincidence that the moon and the sun appear to be the same size from our perspective. The sun is about 400 times larger than the moon (by diameter), but the moon is about 400 times closer to the earth than the sun. There is a lot of talk about catching a ‘teaching moment’ – well this is it. Science and math are on display in an awesome show.”
As for no-nos, she said apart from not looking directly at the solar eclipse as this is damaging to the eye, persons should not take photos of the eclipse unless they have a solar filter for their camera. Telescopes and binoculars are also big no-nos.
Davis-Burnett holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Geological Sciences, plus a Master’s Degree in Education. She has been a science educator for about 25 years with emphasis on earth science. She also teaches Geology at USM and runs a hands-on science programme at the Player Development Centre at the St. Maarten Little League.
Davis-Burnett also writes the weekly column in the WEEKender called “Looking up at the Night Sky” which allows residents and visitors to St. Maarten to know how the stars, planets and the moon are best observed over the coming weekends. “The great Carl Sagan, one of my personal heroes, once said that virtually every newspaper in the world has a daily astrology column, but almost none has even a weekly astronomy column. I decided that The Daily Herald should be in the latter category and a few years ago took it upon myself to start a night sky report dedicated to St. Maarten’s view of the stars,” she said.
Davis Burnett said she has watched many lunar eclipses, where the earth blocks the light of the sun so that the full moon appears to have a bite taken out of it. “That is also amazing to see, but for solar eclipses, I only saw one other and it was also partial, that was in 1998 here in St. Maarten. I was teaching at the International School back then and we allowed the students to either come to school or stay home if they wanted to be with their families, to view the eclipse together. At the school we made pinhole cameras and did art projects associated with the eclipse, it was a great day and the light went very flat, but I don’t think we had as much coverage then as we will have this time. I really am going crazy not to be up in North America where the eclipse will be 100 per cent coverage. I would love to be there with the other science fanatics.”
Asked what her fascination with solar eclipses is, she said, “I think observing nature is a real blessing. The natural world is endlessly fascinating and we have the ability to understand what we observe. Our rational minds have taken us to the moon and we have sent spacecraft to every planet in the solar system and even beyond! I try to teach my students to observe and think about what they observe. In this day and age of fake news, people seem to think reality is whatever you say it is, but the universe doesn’t care what someone says, it is what it is and those that see that and understand it are empowered by truth. So the eclipse on Monday afternoon is a chance to see something fascinating, beautiful and true.”