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Public engagement

Scientists, solar eclipses, and smartphones

‘Interdisciplinary collaboration’ is a phrase familiar to many scientists. It is tied into funding applications, policy decisions, and teaching. But sometimes, it is the wonder of science and science alone that brings people from all different walks of life together, and that’s what happened on Friday March 20th when, briefly, the moon eclipsed the sun and the earth was plunged into darkness. Here Kevin Clark explains how scientists from the WIMM were joined by members of the public to witness this remarkable event.

Scientists, by their nature, are inquisitive folk. They can’t help taking an interest in scientific phenomena going on around them, even if it isn’t remotely related to their own research.

Image credit: Aimee Fenwick. Telescope: Celestron 90mm refracting telescope.

Image credit: Aimee Fenwick. Telescope: Celestron 90mm refracting telescope.

This was obviously apparent on Friday, March 20th when the first solar eclipse for 16 years occurred over the United Kingdom. Many of the staff from the WIMM ventured out of the Institute at 8.30am to witness this incredible dance by the Sun and Moon.

This rare and amazing phenomenon happens thanks to a coincidence between the size of the Sun and Moon and their distance from us. The Sun is about 400 times further away than the Moon but it’s also 400 times bigger so from Earth they appear to be about the same size.

Roughly twice a year, the orbit of the Moon coincides with the Sun to give us a solar eclipse – but very rarely do these happen over the UK, and that’s why March 20th was so special. We also get lunar eclipses when the Earth sits exactly between the Sun and Moon and we’ll see a one of those on September 28th this year.

Safety first though! Philip North from Tom Milne’s group is a keen amateur astronomer and brought along some eclipse glasses to enable people to watch the eclipse and still have their eyes intact afterwards.

He also had a refracting telescope for some great close up views and I had a standard DSLR camera with a long lens for still shots. Both the camera and the telescope had special filters on the end to protect both the equipment and the observers.

Over the next two hours, several people from the WIMM came out to see the event and also many passers-by stopped to see what we were doing and look at the views we were getting. Many took pictures of the live view on the back of my camera with their smartphones and one lady exclaimed: “Oh my golly gosh look at that!’ when she saw the view through the telescope! I guess it’s not every day you see such a view of the Sun!

Image credit: Kevin Clark (taken with a Canon 7D Mkii with a 40mm lens and a 1.4mm extender)

Image credit: Kevin Clark (taken with a Canon 7D Mkii with a 400mm lens and a 1.4x extender)

At the point of totality, which for us here in Oxford meant that around 85% of the sun was eclipsed by the moon, it got a little bit darker and a lot colder. We had a lovely smiling sliver of Sun visible through the wispy cloud and then over the next hour we gradually got our full Sun back again.

I got a nice sequence of images during the eclipse as I was taking a picture every couple of minutes. On the

Image credit: Kevin Clark

Image credit: Kevin Clark

larger images you can see a sunspot at the top left (see image, right). These are caused by magnetic changes in the surface that cause colder regions to form. The one in the picture is about the same size as the Earth. Makes you feel small doesn’t it!

And so it was over. The astronomical dance that must have made the ancient world wonder what on earth the gods were up to had passed, and left us feeling like we had seen something truly special. And indeed we had.

See you for the next one in 2026!

Post edited by Bryony Graham.

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