Chasing the eclipse

Douglas Duncan, who earned his Ph. D in astronomy from UC Santa Cruz in 1980, and is now director of the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, will lead an eager throng of like-minded eclipse chasers to Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming.

Douglas Duncan is a fully committed total eclipse chaser.

He’s followed these black and luminous visions in the sky from China to the Galapagos. Duncan once shot footage of an eclipse at the moment of totality in Baja California. Play back the video and you can hear a crowd of excitable college students roaring profanities at the sky.

“A total eclipse looks like the end of the world,” Duncan noted drily. “It makes you say some colorful things. You don’t say ‘wow’ or ‘holy cow.’’

Next week, Duncan, who earned his Ph. D in astronomy from UC Santa Cruz in 1980, and is now director of the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, will lead an eager throng of like-minded eclipse chasers to Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming, where he and a healthy contingent of other UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, will gather to lecture and learn about the eclipse before taking in the big event itself on August 21st.

Excitement is building because this will be an exceedingly rare “coast to coast’’ solar eclipse in which a 70-mile-wide band of shadow, made possible by the moon slipping between the earth and the sun, will rush eastward from the Oregon coast to South Carolina. The last coast-to-coaster was 99 years ago. The New York Times recently estimated that 100 million people live insider or close to this “path of totality.”

Many of those people will be looking at the sky – with special protective sunglasses, of course.

And don’t expect Duncan to curb his enthusiasm beforehand. Duncan, who is quoted frequently in publications such as the Washington Post, has become one of the most vocal cheerleaders for the eclipse. Long drives? Gigantic crowds? Traffic jams? Forget about it. Duncan says any inconvenience would be well worth it, considering this is the event of a lifetime.  “This is something you will not forget to your dying day,” he said.

Duncan has led several other full solar eclipse trips in other parts of the world. He’s even developed an online Coursera course about the sun and the 2017 eclipse to prepare as many people as possible for ‘totality.’ He and three of his astronomer colleagues recently secured a grant that helped them provide ‘eclipse education’ resources to 7,000 libraries and viewing centers all over the United States.

Planning ahead

Duncan predicted that there would be an eclipse frenzy this year, so he planned ahead – way ahead, in fact.

Four years ago, he found a grand old hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that he knew would be perfect for his informal eclipse-watching symposium, so he approached the front desk with a unique request. “I said, ‘I would like rooms for 300 people four years from now. I gave them the deposit.’’

It was a powerful feeling. He said he felt as if “I owned the rooms.’’

Some of the guests booked way in advance. One of them, Meg Corman, special assistant to UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal, made reservations for the Wyoming trip two years ago. “I met Doug during the 50th anniversary celebration, and he told me about the trip,” she said. “I talked to my friends about it. Now there are six of us going!”

Duncan’s eclipse event will be a reunion of sorts for UC Santa Cruz graduates. In fact, he estimates that two thirds of the speakers went to UC Santa Cruz, including astronaut Steve Hawley (Ph.D., astronomy and astrophysics,1977) and astronomer Nick Suntzeff (Ph.D, astronomy and astrophysics, 1980.)Duncan was at UC Santa Cruz from 1973 to 1980. While he was here, he forged lasting connections with faculty and administration. For instance, “my cosmology professor was a guy named George Blumenthal,” he noted with a chuckle, referring to the current chancellor of UC Santa Cruz.

If you are one of the throngs of people heading out for Oregon, Wyoming, and other eclipse-zone ‘dark spots,’ prepare to witness some wild behavior – and not just among your fellow human beings. In 1998, in the Galapagos, five minutes before totality, Duncan was on a boat. Suddenly something peculiar happened. “Every whale and dolphin in the vicinity swam back and forth’’ during the total eclipse. Then they vanished. “We were there 10 days and didn’t see them again,” Duncan said.

Asked to explain this strange occurrence, Duncan explained that these sea creatures live close to the equator and are accustomed to 12 hours of light for most days of the year. Naturally, they were flummoxed when nighttime came and vanished so quickly. “I figure they came up to see what was going on,’’ he said.

In 1994, during a total eclipse in Bolivia, Duncan and his cohorts were staring up at the sky. Then someone excitedly shouted, “look down.”

“We looked down, and we were surrounded by llamas,” Duncan said. “No one saw where they came from. When the eclipse was over, they kind of got in a line and marched away.”

If you are planning an eclipse-watching trip, or just want to follow the progress of the eclipse shadow, check out NASA’s eclipse website, which also offers information on past and future eclipses, as does the website of Fiske Planetarium, which Duncan directs: