April 17, 2024

La Ronge Northerner

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Jay Pasachoff, who spent his life chasing eclipses, will be missed on April 8

Jay Pasachoff, who spent his life chasing eclipses, will be missed on April 8

A total solar eclipse, when the universe snaps into place with the worlds lined up like major spheres, may be one of the most visceral experiences you can have without eating anything illegal.

Some people scream, some people cry. Eight times, I have passed through this cycle of light and dark, death and rebirth, and have felt the light dissolve and seen the sun's corona spreading its pale, feathery wings across the sky. It never gets old. As you read this article, I'm getting ready to go to Dallas, with my family and old friends, to view the ninth eclipse.

One old friend won't be there: Jay M. Passachoff, who was a longtime professor of astronomy at Williams College. I have stood with him in the shadow of the moon three times: on the island of Java in Indonesia, in Oregon, and on a small island off Turkey.

I was looking forward to seeing him again next week. But Jay died in late 2022, ending his half-century career as an opportunistic cosmic evangelist, as responsible as anyone for the sensational circus of science, wonder and tourism that the solar eclipse has become.

“We are shade lovers,” Dr. Pasachoff wrote in the New York Times in 2010. And since we once stood in the shadow, that is, the shadow of the Moon, during a solar eclipse, we are obliged to do so again and again, whenever the Moon moves between the Earth and the Sun.”

When the eclipse occurred, Jay could be found wearing his lucky orange pants and leading expeditions for colleagues, students (many of whom became professional astronomers and eclipse chasers themselves), tourists and friends to the corners of every continent. Many who joined his outings were introduced to the adrenaline-filled chase of a few magical minutes or seconds while hoping it wouldn't rain. He was the one who knew everyone and was in control to get his students tickets to the remotest parts of the world, often for jobs operating cameras and other instruments, and to get them involved in the science project.

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“Jay is probably responsible for inspiring more undergraduates to move into careers in astronomy than anyone else ever,” said Stuart Vogel, a retired radio astronomer at the University of Maryland.

His death ended a remarkable streak of success in pursuing darkness. He saw 75 eclipses, including 36 total eclipses. Overall, according to Eclipse chaser logDr. Pasachov spent more than an hour, 28 minutes, and 36 seconds (he was a stickler for the details) in the moon's shadow.

“It was larger than life,” said Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who said one of Dr. Pasachoff's hats from the eclipse flight was hanging on the wall of his office in Boulder, Colorado.

As the world prepares for the last total eclipse that will touch the lower 48 states within the next 20 years, it seems strange that it is not in view. And I'm not the only one who misses him.

“He was probably the most influential person in my career, and his absence is deeply felt,” said Dan Seaton, a solar physicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.

Dr. Pasachoff was a 16-year-old Harvard freshman in 1959 when he saw his first eclipse, off the coast of New England in a DC-3 plane chartered by his mentor, Harvard professor Donald Menzel. He was hooked.

Post Ph.D. From Harvard, Dr. Pasachoff finally joined Williams College in 1972 and immediately began recruiting eclipse chasers.

Daniel Steinbring, now a professor emeritus at Oberlin College, was a freshman when he was recruited for an eclipse expedition off the coast of Prince Edward Island.

The day of the eclipse dawned cloudy. Dr. Pasachov, under the guidance of his old mentor, Dr. Menzil, hired a pilot and a small plane. He sent his young student to the airport with a fancy Nikon camera and asked him to photograph the eclipse while hanging from the open door of the plane.

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“I had this unobstructed view of the eclipse. And you know, here I was the only person from Williams who could see the eclipse.”

A year later, in 1973, Mr. Steinbring found himself on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya with Dr. Pasachoff and teams from 14 other universities awaiting the longest eclipse of the century, about seven minutes total. He said that moment changed his life.

“It made me feel like, if this is what astronomers do for a living, then I'm in,” he said.

His old students said that Dr. Pasachov did his best to inform local residents not to be afraid of the eclipse and how to view it safely.

Dr. Pasachov took pride in his preparations, mobilizing local scientific support and other communications, equipment, housing and other logistics years before the actual eclipse.

“Jay always had a backup plan,” said Dennis Di Cicco, longtime editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.

In 1983, Dr. Pasachov arrived in Indonesia on an eclipse expedition sponsored by the National Science Foundation. He discovers that the digital recording device on which all his data will be stored is broken.

Dr. Pasachoff called his wife, Naomi, a science historian who also works at Williams College and who was at her home in Massachusetts, which has witnessed 48 eclipses. She tried to order a new recording device, but was told that the paperwork needed to ship the device to Java would take several days. Mr. De Cicco was pressed into service. Within 24 hours, he renewed his passport, picked up the recording device and boarded a plane to Indonesia. Mr. De Cicco arrived just one day before the eclipse.

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Dr. Pasachoff paid for the $4,000 round-trip ticket. A Lufthansa employee told Mr Di Cicco that this was the most expensive bus ticket she had ever seen.

Solar eclipses are now big business and less in need of an herald, Kevin Reardon, a Williams alumnus who is now a scientist at the National Solar Observatory and the University of Colorado Boulder, said in an interview. “Now, everyone knows that eclipses are big.”

Even with powerful new solar observatories and spacecraft dedicated to observing the Sun, there is still science to be done during eclipses on Earth, such as observing the corona, which continues to move Jay.

Dr. Pasachoff prided himself on rarely missing the eclipse, and credited the weather as it was never cloudy. He has always managed to secure the best spots, and Mazatlan, Mexico looked very promising for 2024.

But he sent me an email in 2021 saying his lung cancer had spread to his brain, and offering material for his obituary.

However, he wrote, “I have not given up the idea of ​​going to the Antarctic eclipse on December 4, for which I have three lines of research.” He did go and send back eerie images of a ghostly sun above an icy horizon, his final journey in the dark. However, keep planning for upcoming eclipses.

“You know, there's one eclipse, and then the next, and then the next,” Dr. Reardon said. “He wanted to see every eclipse and he didn't want to think there would be a last one.”

He will be alone in the shadows on April 8.