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How cool is that: South Florida to experience partial solar eclipse on Monday afternoon
View from FIU's Stocker AstroScience Center control room: A static image shows three phases of the partial solar eclipse that will take place Monday in South Florida.

How cool is that: South Florida to experience partial solar eclipse on Monday afternoon

April 3, 2024 at 7:25am

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or maybe studying for exams), you’ve likely heard that a total solar eclipse will take place in parts of the United States on Monday. Many towns and cities within the narrow strip that will see complete darkness for up to several minutes are bracing for an influx of visitors, and huge traffic jams are expected.

Florida is outside the path of totality, meaning we will see only a portion of the sun hidden by the moon, about 50%. Yet that makes for reason enough to get excited, says James Webb, a professor of physics and a world-renowned astrophysicist.

With half the sun covered by the moon, the bright orb will look like an orange with a big bite taken out of it.

To celebrate, Webb will be throwing an eclipse party featuring telescopes with solar filters, eclipse glasses and mini-talks about the history of these heavenly events. The activity takes place at 2-4 p.m. outside of FIU’s own Stocker AstroScience Center at MMC, which opened in 2013 and that Webb himself helped make a reality and currently directs.

The center has served as a powerful source of education for students, says Webb, who has taught at FIU for more than three decades. “It can’t be calculated,” he says of the value of such a facility. “It’s just infinite because I have students who graduated from here and, due to their experiences, have gone to NASA to work in the control rooms. They were inspired to go on from here.”

James WebbThe building also periodically hosts “star parties,” gatherings for anyone interested in the night sky, the next of which is at 8 p.m. on Friday.

Webb recently talked about the upcoming partial eclipse, a phenomenon South Floridians last experienced in October of 2023, although cloud cover that day obscured visibility. Many others likely recall the highly anticipated 2017 eclipse, which saw 78% of the sun hidden by the moon. Campus that weekday was abuzz as thousands came out of classrooms and offices to watch the action.

How will this partial eclipse appear to us at FIU?
It will sort of feel like a cloud going over the sun, but you can't look at it unless you have proper glasses. Only with proper protection should you watch the moon moving across the sun. Sunglasses, even welding glasses do not provide enough protection. Unless you have NASA-approved eclipse solar glasses, do not look at it.

How do you explain an eclipse in simplest terms?
A solar eclipse is when the moon positions itself right in front of the sun. Turns out, the angular size of the moon is exactly the angular size of the sun. Although their physical size is a lot different, how big they appear to us here on Earth is about the same size, which is weird. It just happens to be that way. No real reason for it. Now, the moon doesn’t orbit the same plane as the Earth orbits the sun. So, every time there is a new moon, sometimes it’s five degrees above, sometimes five degrees below, but when it’s actually right in the same plane, then we get an eclipse somewhere on Earth.

Why is it so rare? We think everything is regular and ordered when it comes to celestial bodies, and all of a sudden this happens.
Eclipses happen every year. It’s just you’re not always in a place that you can see them. You might have to be in Europe, sometimes Asia, sometimes north America, sometimes Antarctica. It just depends. So, you have not only the Earth going around the sun, and the moon going around the Earth, but also the Earth is rotating. So, these all come into play and determine where on Earth you’re going to see the eclipse.

There was a time when eclipses would have caused fear.
We’ve learned a lot. The ancient Mayans actually predicted eclipses. They didn’t understand what they were, but they were able to predict them because they had years and years of watching them. They thought they were due to the gods.

Does it surprise you how people in the path of totality are reacting to this upcoming event?
I think it’s great because I think nature is wonderful. The difference between now and before is social media. Now people can hear about it and get excited about it and communicate with their friends and make plans. So social media makes a total difference.

What I’m hoping comes from these events is that people understand that scientists can accurately predict these things years in advance. Scientists can predict down to the seconds when an eclipse is going to occur in the future. The value of science in understanding nature carries over to other natural phenomenon such as global warming, and how we are affecting the health of our planet.

Do you think the excitement is justified, or should we just chalk it up to nature doing its thing?
Can you image a total solar eclipse where day becomes night for several minutes? It’s dark. You can see stars in the sky, and the moon basically has a ring around it from the sun. And the animals react differently. The birds sing differently. The crickets come out. And then all of a sudden, the sun comes back out. So, it’s really weird. There’s a feeling that you get from a total eclipse that you don’t get any other time. So, yeah, I think the excitement is merited.