Miss Pym and a Friend

Miss Pym and a Friend

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Maria Mitchell: Astronomer and Excellent Woman

The Solar Eclipse and Maria Mitchell
By Ellen Tsagaris
Popular Astronomy Club

On March 20, 2015, the next solar eclipse will be visible.  NASA’s Solar Eclipse Page provides tables of past and future solar eclipses, along with graphics and other pertinent information. 

A solar eclipse takes place, of course, when the moon passes between the sun and the earth.  Once this occurs, the moon partially or totally hides the sun.  Then, the moon casts a shadow on the earth.

For a solar eclipse to occur there must be a new moon because the eclipse can only take place during the phase of the new moon, which makes it possible for the moon to cast its shadow on the earth.

Such an event has been billions of years in the making, truly awesome when one considers that since its formation almost 4.5 billion years ago, the moon has been steadily pulling away from the earth. According to Space.com, the moon has been moving away from the earth by about 1.6 inches each year.  Furthermore, the writers at Space.com point out that “right now the moon is at the perfect distance to appear in our sky exactly the same size as the sun, and therefore block it out. “

The Bible mentions a solar eclipse in Amos 8: 9, “I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the Earth in the clear day.”  Other references from Ancient China and Nineveh have also been documented. 

Most solar eclipses are very short, with some of the longest recorded at 7 minutes 31 seconds. During this time, the corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun, is visible.

The March eclipse will not be visible in the Quad City area, unfortunately. A total solar eclipse will be visible in Svalbard, Norway and the Faroe Islands, while a partial solar eclipse will be visible in Europe, northern and eastern Asia and northern and western Africa

The last solar eclipse was only a partial eclipse and occurred on October 23, 2014.

Celebrated astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) made the study of solar eclipses her specialty.  Mitchell was born to Quaker parents who believed in educating equally their sons and daughters.  She learned to love astronomy through helping her father, and one evening, she helped him calculate their home’s position by observing a solar eclipse. Mitchell became famous after she discovered a comet in 1847.  The King of Denmark awarded her a gold medal for her discovery of the comet.  In 1856, Mitchell became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College.

Maria Mitchell was an admired and beloved teacher who inspired her students and believed woman could achieve the same accomplishments that men did, if they could only be given a chance.  She believed creativity and science worked well together, and one quote attributed to her reads: “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.”

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