Eclipse Chaser, Doug Duncan, on the August 2017 Solar Eclipse

University of Colorado Boulder astronomer Doug Duncan has chased eclipses all over the world.
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Dr. Douglas Duncan, Department of Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences, and Director, Fiske Planetarium at CU. Photo by Colin Mahoney courtesy of Univ. of Colorado

Dr. Douglas Duncan, Department of Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences, and Director, Fiske Planetarium at CU. Photo by Colin Mahoney courtesy of Univ. of Colorado

Doug Duncan, an astronomer and director of Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado Boulder, has done extraordinary work for the astronomy community during his lifetime. From chasing eclipses all over the world to working on the Hubble Space Telescope with NASA, his accomplishments are ongoing.

"I’ve seen between 10-12 eclipses, so I chase them all over the world," he says. "Somewhere on the Earth, there is an eclipse about every two years."

Today, he is working on a project for the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. It will be the first total eclipse to be seen in the United States since 1979. Duncan, a co-director for the project, and a team he is part of, have received a grant from the Moore Foundation. The grant will equip local libraries across the country with eclipse-watching glasses. The glasses are critical for anyone  watching the lead-up to an eclipse when looking up can burn your eyes. 

The August 2017 eclipse will only be seen in totality a handful of states. Nonetheless, people in every state will see a big chunk of the sun covered by the moon.

Duncan also leads groups to view eclipses under the name “Astronomy for All.” In August, he will bring a group to Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyo., one of the best places to see the total solar eclipse in 2017. His tours are open groups to anyone but fill up fast. 

(Related story: Total Solar Eclipse in Wyoming August 21, 2017)

Q: You started out your astronomy career studying eclipses. Is this still relevant to your research?

A: The eclipse is actually more for fun nowadays. It is kind of separate from science I have done with Hubble Telescope or anything like that. We have really good satellites to study the sun, so the scientific importance of an eclipse is less than it used to be but the dramatic aspect of it is as good as it ever was.

(Thomas Edison) had an electrical detector to detect infrared or heat. He wanted to see if the sun’s atmosphere gave off heat, but he had never put his detector on a telescope. In fact, he had maybe never used a telescope. So, when he tried to put the detector at the end of the telescope it was kind of shaky. He was having a very hard time getting anything to work, so he put his telescope and detector in a chicken coop that had an open top so he could still see the sun. Unfortunately, when the total eclipse happened, all the chickens decided it was night and came home to roost, so they were getting in the way of Edison’s observations.

Q: Do animals do strange things during the eclipse?

A: My interpretation is that the “not so smart” animals, cows and chickens, think, “Oh, it must be night” and head for the barn or coop. In Bolivia, we got surrounded by llamas, and especially in the Galapagos, that was so wild. Five minutes before the darkest part of the eclipse, every whale and dolphin in the vicinity surfaced and began cruising around. They watched the eclipse, and five minutes later they swam away and we never saw them again.

Q: How many of these eclipses have you seen?

A: (I’ve seen) between 10-12 (eclipses), so I chase them all over the world. Somewhere on the Earth, there is an eclipse about every two years.

On one hand, there are a lot, but on the other hand the Earth is big. So if you sit in one place and wait, you’re going to wait for a couple centuries. If you’re willing to chase them, you can find one every couple years. You just have to be prepared to chase far.

Q: For people whose first eclipse will be this one, what should they expect?

A: The most important thing to realize is if 95 percent of the sun is covered, you should not think of it as a “95-percent eclipse.” You should think of it as a “5 percent- of-the-sun-is-out eclipse”, and it turns out that 5 percent of the sun is so strong, that it won’t even get dark. So the difference between 99 percent and 100 percent is night and day, literally. So a partial eclipse, 75 or 90 percent, is really interesting, but a total eclipse is something you’ll remember your whole life. I’d say the comparison is, a partial eclipse is liking listening to your favorite music with ear buds. A total eclipse is like sitting in front of the stage. It’s that different.

For more information on where to see the eclipse and its trajectory, visit https://www.eclipse-watch.com.

Want to know more about Duncan and his on-going projects relating to eclipses? Check out www.colorado.edu/fiske/eclipse and www.colorado.edu/fiske/dr-doug-duncan.

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