As the sun’s light turned from a bright yellow to a wan, extraterrestrial orange, thousands gathered Monday afternoon on the lawn of Leitner Observatory on Prospect Street. They had come with tinted glasses, telescopes modern and replica, sunspotters, and homemade pinpoint projectors to observe a partial solar eclipse.
They had brought their science-themed T-shirts (“Spin Galactic”; “Stand Back—I’m Going to Try Science”). They made a party in the middle of the day where the small talk was peppered with discussions of the mechanics of the various viewing devices they had brought, and the astronomical trajectories that had aligned to make the event happen.
The partial eclipse, in short, was a glorious, full-on nerdfest.
Leitner Observatory had put up a small notice through its Twitter account and on its website that it would be open Monday starting at 1 p.m. It would hand out free eclipse glasses and set up solar telescopes and other viewing devices.
Recalling the throngs who had turned up at the observatory for the Transit of Venus in 2012, I and my son Leo arrived at Leitner at noon to discover the parking already past capacity, and cars lined up on the sloped lawn. We took our place in a line for eclipse glasses and a chance at the large solar telescopes that ultimately spilled across the lawn, doubled back, and spiraled in on itself as thousands of people arrived.
The observatory ran out of glasses fast. It didn’t matter. Many people had brought their own glasses and set up chairs and picnics on the lawn. Arpita Pawashe, visiting her family in Woodbridge, brought her own solar telescope. “I got this because I couldn’t get the glasses,” she explained. She bought it at Best Buy on Thursday after her aunt suggested it as an alternative. She had tried it out already and was pleased to be able to see sunspots. She was not alone.
My phone buzzed in my pocket with the news alert that the eclipse had begun in Oregon. The sun went behind a cloud and came back out again. When the moon began to pass in front of the sun, a cheer went up from the front of the line and people started handing around the glasses they’d brought. A neighbor handed me a pair. There it was: the sun with a bite taken out of it. I took the glasses off and looked around. I wanted to say it was getting a little darker but I couldn’t be sure.
William F. van Altena, a professor of astronomy at Yale, began walking down the line with a hand-held telescope that allowed him to project the image of the eclipse onto a piece of paper, so everyone could see it.
Leo, meanwhile, was waylaid by Zach Morek, who works in IT at the Yale School of Management. “I’m just a nerd who doesn’t want to drive down to South Carolina,” Morek said. “I’m sure the totality is a trip, but this is a trip, too.”
He had arrived early and seen how long the line for the glasses already was. “I realized, when I saw the line was gnarly, that I could bring stuff from my recycling pile” to make a pinpoint projector for himself. “And then I thought, ‘Why not bring a bunch of extra stuff? It’ll be a group arts and crafts project.’”
Morek brought several boxes and paper bags, white paper, foil, and duct tape. He, Leo, and several other adults and children set to work busily constructing pinpoint projectors for themselves that they then put to use, immediately.
Others held screens to their cell phones to be able to take pictures. The light around us was beginning to change, less like what I was used to on Earth and more like what I might expect from another planet. Maybe Mars. Maybe some other place. I borrowed someone’s glasses again for a moment. The sun was now a crescent.
Ivano Dal Prete, a lecturer in Yale’s history department, brought a telescope that was a replica of the one Galileo Galilei had used to observe the moons of Jupiter. He’d had it made in Italy for teaching purposes, he explained, as he teaches history of science. Like van Altena, he used the telescope to reflect the image of the eclipse onto a piece of paper.
“This is how people would watch the sun in Galileo’s time,” he said. “You can actually see sunspots.” Were those sunspots we were seeing now? No, he laughed; he just hadn’t cleaned the lenses.
The telescope had been made in Italy 30 miles from where Galileo lived. Dal Prete discovered that, indeed, “you can see the satellites of Jupiter, but not always.”
“The funny thing is that before this was invented,” Dal Prete said, “people looked at the sun through veils, which is extremely dangerous.” An astronomer of that day reported that after observing the sun, he “saw clouds flying around him” — a result of burns on his retina that, happily, proved to be only temporary.
Near Dal Prete I came across a woman who had made solar binoculars with enormous flower petals on them. She was letting everyone try them out, and then photographing them with her cell phone.
Another man had made a viewing device out of a welding helmet.
Still another group of friends had brought a large pinpoint projector made out of a shipping box. It was big enough to fit over one’s head; tilting your head just right meant you could see the eclipse. I asked if I could try it and they agreed. It took a second, but I got the angle right. In the weird, alien light the sun was now just a thick fingernail. Amazing to think that it was still enough to light and heat the planet, and just for a few hours, transform it, too.