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UB families travel long distances to see eclipse in the path of totality

In Idaho, UB physicist Will Kinney photographed the diamond ring effect, which occurs in the moments before and after the totality of a solar eclipse.

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published August 22, 2017

As the shadow of the Moon swept across the U.S. on Monday in a total solar eclipse, several UB faculty and staff members journeyed long distances to see the phenomenon in its full effect.

They traveled to far-flung places — from Idaho to Tennessee — to be in the path of totality, the narrow band of land over which the moon completely blocks the sun. When that happens, skies darken in the middle of the day. Stars bloom overhead. The sun’s corona shines, forming a brilliant ring of light around the silhouette of the moon.

Soon after experiencing this extraordinary event, several members of the UB community shared their stories with UBNow.

Jeanette Sperhac (CCR) and Will Kinney (physics)

UB physicist Will Kinney in Rexburg, Idaho.

Location: Rexburg, Idaho

“You see dawn all the way around the skyline, all at the same time, on every horizon.” — Sperhac

Sperhac, a scientific programmer at UB’s Center for Computational Research, and Kinney, a professor of physics, camped in an open field the night before the eclipse. In the morning, they set up a telescope for better viewing. As they waited for the moon to come, they were in the company of amateur astronomers and casual stargazers, mostly people who had traveled from West Coast states like Utah or Colorado.

What they experienced together took their breath away.

“My heart was pounding for about a half an hour afterward,” says Kinney, a cosmologist who is married to Sperhac.

As the moment of totality approached, “We saw the shadow coming,” he says. “It’s this huge black wall that is flying toward you at almost 2,000 miles an hour. You see shimmering bright bands rushing along the ground one after another, and the quality of the light is very eerie and otherworldly.”

“It's a sensory experience,” Sperhac says.

“It is overwhelming and fantastically beautiful, and very difficult to describe to people in a way where they understand how overwhelming it is,” Kinney says.

As the eclipse reached its height and the sun disappeared behind the moon, people started shouting and howling and laughing, Kinney says. The excitement was genuine and spontaneous.

“It’s something that affects people at a level of emotion rather than intellect,” he says. “It brings out this really profound emotion in you, and like any other primarily emotional experience, it’s very hard to explain to someone else.”

Tracy Gregg (geology)

From left: Edie Gregg (age 15), Tim Gregg and Tracy Gregg watch the eclipse in Tennessee. Photo: Tim Gregg

Location: Cedars of Lebanon State Park in Lebanon, Tennessee

“It was 93 degrees Fahrenheit with 75 percent relative humidity, and as the eclipse proceeded, you could feel the air temperature dropping.”

Gregg, an associate professor of geology, prepared for Monday’s eclipse well in advance. She made hotel reservations back in 2016. She bought eclipse glasses about six months ago.

When she decided to travel to the path of totality, she recalls, “I made an announcement to my family: ‘I am going to this eclipse.’”

Gregg, a planetary geologist who has studied volcanism on the moon and other planets, viewed the eclipse as a chance to personally witness the machinery of the solar system in action. Her husband and daughter, who is 15, joined her for the trip. It was a family vacation unlike any other.

“As we approached totality, when it got to be about 85 percent coverage, the insects, mostly cicadas, stopped humming and suddenly the birds started singing like they do at sunrise and sunset,” Gregg says.

The air cooled. People started cheering. Venus popped out in the sky. The world grew dark, but at the same time, “It sort of looked like you were surrounded by a sunset or sunrise on all sides, but it was just the reflected light in the atmosphere,” Gregg says. “It was amazing.”

“As a professor, as a human, I believe in experiential learning,” she says. “It’s one thing to read about (something) in a textbook or see a video or a photograph. It’s an entirely different thing to be there and to feel the air temperature drop and to see the shadows change color from dark black to purple as the eclipse proceeds. There’s just no substitute for being there in person … There’s no substitute for the human presence.”

Gino Biondini (mathematics)

UB mathematician Gino Biondini took his twin sons, Giacomo (left) and Matteo to see the total solar eclipse in Missouri.

Location: St. Joseph, Missouri

“It’s like when you look up at the sky, there’s a bite out of the sun that keeps getting bigger and bigger.” — Giacomo Biondini

For UB mathematician Gino Biondini, the journey to Missouri to see the eclipse was an opportunity to share in the wonder of the natural world with his twin sons, Matteo and Giacomo, age 10.

Donning eclipse glasses, the family members kept their eyes trained on the sky, marveling over the moments when the sun and moon emerged from behind clouds that lingered overhead for much of the time.

Despite the weather, Biondini says the experience was “almost unreal.” Matteo and Giacomo agreed.

At the moment of totality, “It was completely dark like night,” says Matteo. “And before totality, it got really dark really quickly. The temperature dropped, the light dropped.”

“In the span of (a few) minutes, it goes from daytime light to pitch dark,” Giacomo adds. “And you can hear crickets chirping, the sun looks like a hole, and then it gets light as day again — like nothing happened all.”

Adding to the emotion was the knowledge that experiencing a total solar eclipse is truly rare: As Giacomo points out, the phenomenon occurs at any given point on the Earth just once every 375 years, on average.

“I’m glad that we went,” he says.

Nnedi Okorafor (English, viewed a partial eclipse from Illinois)

UB English professor and sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor photographed the solar eclipse from Illinois, where she witnessed a more complete eclipse than Western New York experienced.

Location: A forest preserve in Country Club Hills, Illinois

“When I arrived, no one else was there, so I got to view the first part of the eclipse alone with no noise, but that of the cicadas (until they stopped singing), crickets and birds.”

Okorafor, a sci-fi author and professor of English, experienced the eclipse in a forest preserve where the moon covered nearly 90 percent of the sun. With silver clouds hanging overhead early that day, she was worried, at first, that she would miss the spectacle.

“It was surreal,” she wrote in an email. “It had rained in the morning and I hadn’t slept well because I was worried it would be too cloudy. I didn’t want to look at other people’s photos; I wanted to see this slow dance of heavenly bodies with my own eyes. So I was anxious. When I arrived, it was really cloudy and I didn’t think I’d see anything.”

“Still, I stopped my car, jumped out, put my NASA glasses on and looked up,” Okorafor wrote. “The moment I saw the sun and that it was already half eclipsed, I shouted, ‘Whoohoo! I see you!’ Despite the clouds, the sun managed to shine through. The sun is truly powerful.”

She describes her viewing location as an open space — a field of weeds, wildflowers and grass, then the forest.

It was exactly where she wanted to be: somewhere quiet in the middle of nature. There, among the fairy-like cicadas, who went silent for the eclipse but resumed their humming once the event had passed, she took it all in.

“I was in the natural world,” she wrote. “It was perfect.”