A teachable moment in the solar eclipse

This 2014 image shows the moon’s disk partially blocking the view of the solar corona. (Image: NASA)

Stephanie McCaslin, a math professor at the College of Southern Maryland, missed the last total eclipse of the sun visible to the U.S. in 1979. But McCaslin has a starring role in the upcoming eclipse Aug. 21.

“I was 4 and living in the Southwest,” McCaslin said of the last eclipse. “We were out of the path of totality (the 70-mile-wide area where the sun is completely blocked out by the moon}, and it was a cloudy day. So, I’ve never seen a total eclipse.”

Making up for that disappointment, McCaslin is excited to participate in the Aug. 21 eclipse as part of a four-day event in Broken Bow, Nebraska, which is within the path of totality. McCaslin, at the invitation of the city and a county development group, will discuss the mathematics of eclipses, following days of events like a chicken-wing eating contest, live music concerts, a street dance and barrel racing that will make up the Broken Bow NeClipse 2017 festival.

College of Southern Maryland math professor Stephanie McCaslin will speak about the math related to a total eclipse at an eclipse festival in Nebraska. (Photo: Val Nyce/CSM)

“There’s math everywhere, but especially in any astronomy,” McCaslin said. “I’ll be talking about the statistical frequencies, the probabilities and geometry. As a mathematician, I love to play with numbers, and I love that the slight tilt of the moon’s orbit, combined with its elliptical shape, and the ratio of the size of the moon compared to the distance of the earth from the sun create the perfect circumstances for an eclipse like this one to occur.”

A total solar eclipse can be “a magical moment,” McCaslin said.

Aside from the temperature dropping up to 20 degrees and witnessing the glow of the sun’s power behind the black void of the moon, it is the only time that the Bailey’s beads are visible – beads of light caused by the hills and valleys of the moon’s surface, she said.

“A total solar eclipse is magnificent, in that everyone will stop, and we will collectively be looking up at the heavens together, a true community of observers,” McCaslin said.

The livestream of McCaslin’s presentation and the eclipse will be available at http://ncnsportsnow.com/, with coverage beginning at 10 a.m. (ET).

Many community colleges across the country are hosting eclipse viewings, from Aims Community College in Colorado to El Paso Community College in Texas, Tennessee’s Cleveland State Community College to Washington State Community College in Ohio. Several are including their planetariums and telescopes in the events, while others, such as Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, have held a whole month’s worth of related events leading up to Aug. 21.

About the Author

Susan Craton
is media relations coordinator at the College of Southern Maryland.