Excited about the eclipse? So are scientists and TV people

Sure, there are times when science-talk causes me to blank out. But if the subject involves turning day into night, blackening our world ... OK, you've got my interest,. Now Americans are ready for an eclipse Monday, and TV is ready to cover it. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As Americans
prepared for Monday's event, we heard stories of past solar eclipses.

People have
screamed, cheered, wailed; they've been awed or gaga or breathless.

That's pretty silly,
right? Still ... “If you were going to have a natural event ... to
get breathless about, it might be this one,” said James Bullock,
who chairs physics and astronomy at the University of California,

He's one of the
scientists who will be featured in TV coverage before, during and
after the event. All seem to agree that this is a big deal. “It's
the most amazing natural phenomenon that happens from the surface of
the Earth,” said Angela Des Jardins, head of the Montana Space
Grant Consortium.

And it's rare: The
U.S. hasn't had a total eclipse since 1979; it hasn't had one span
both coasts since 1918. Here it is, reaching Oregon at 1:15 p.m. ET
Monday and leaving South Carolina at 2:48. It will cut through Idaho,
Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri and Tennessee, while touching the edges
of others.

That strip is only
70 miles wide, Des Jardins said, but the rest of us won't be
abandoned. “The entire U.S. will experience at least a partial
eclipse ... which is going to be absolutely amazing as well.”

But for TV people
and scientists, that total-eclipse swath will be the key.

On one end, the
Science Channel will have a base in Madras, Oregon. “That will be
the first place that the eclipse will be visible in the United States
(and it usually has) about 95 to 98 percent chance of a clear day,”
said Marc Etkind, the channel's general manager.

At the other end,
Science will be based in South Carolina, where Mike Massimino – the
forner astronaut who's done six “Big Bang Theory” episodes --
will host. That night, there will be specials on PBS and Science,
gathering material from the day. “We will be collecting all of the
great images and getting the results of some of the science
experiments,” Etkind said.

Some of those
involve the effects on the Earth; others involve astronomy, said Amir
Caspi, head of a NASA project. “When the solar disk is blocked out,
you can actually see the solar corona.”

Caspi – featured
in both the PBS and Science projects – is trying to determine why
that outer corona is so much hotter than the sun itself. He's also
wondering why the corona has “well-formed loops and arcades and
fans .... They look like they were freshly combed and not snarled and

All research must be
quick. “At any one location, ... totality lasts about two minutes,”
Des Jardins said.

One solution is to
spread out the observations. She has 55 student teams from 30 states;
Caspi will have two jet planes, combining to catch about seven
minutes of eclipse.

Most of us will
settle for a couple minutes of not-quite-totality. We can watch with
modest caution, Des Jardins said. “Watching the eclipse in general
is not dangerous. The thing that's dangerous is looking at the sun
with no protection, and that's true any time.”

Some of those
watchers might be transformed, Bullock said. “It's spectacular ....
A whole generation of kids (could) be inspired by this physical,
astronomical event that is not ... in a video game.”


-- Preview: “Great
American Eclipse,” 9:02 p.m. ET Sunday, Science; reruns at 12:08
a.m. ET and at 11 a.m. ET Monday.

-- During the
eclipse: ABC, CBS and NBC all plan live coverage from 1-3 p.m. ET.
The Science Channel has live coverage from noon to 4. News and
weather channels are expected to be involved, especially during the
stretch (1:15 to 2:48 p.m. ET), when parts of the U.S. are in total

-- That night:
“Nova” has prepared an hour for 9 p.m. Monday, viewing the
science of the eclipse; it will edit that throughout the day,
inserting new footage; Science will have a new hour at 9:02 p.m. ET
Monday, rerunning at 12:20 a.m. The Science special will rerun at 8
and 11:06 p.m. ET Tuesday; the “Nova” one will rerun at 8 p.m.