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L.A. will see a partial solar eclipse Monday, but experts see a total opportunity for rare research

Scientists eagerly await “The Great American Eclipse” — and remind us to be sure to view it safely

visualization of eclipse
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, casting its shadow on our planet. (Illustration/Courtesy of NASA)

Monday will mark the first coast-to-coast total eclipse in the United States in 99 years and the first total eclipse that can be seen only from American soil in the history of the United States, prompting some to call it “The Great American Eclipse.”

“The solar eclipse provides an opportunity for the public to experience a rare planetary phenomenon. Our live streaming from the atmosphere along with the other schools in the NASA space grant consortium will offer unique views in real time of this amazing event,” said Michael Kezirian, president of the International Space Safety Foundation and adjunct associate professor of astronautics at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Kezirian and USC students will help capture never-before-seen photos of a total solar eclipse from near space and assist other research related to the total eclipse as part of NASA’s nationwide eclipse ballooning project. They will be stationed at Idaho Falls, Idaho, one of the U.S. sites of totality.

“It also provides an important set of conditions where we can study the effects of the sun on the atmosphere,” Kezirian said. “As part of our research on eclipse day, we will collect data readings that scientists will compare against simulation results to understand our Earth.”

Enjoy the eclipse safely

“Directly looking at the solar eclipse is as harmful as sun gazing on a regular day. This causes damage in the retina, the light-sensitive membrane in the back of the eye, and can result in vision loss, the severity of which depends on the duration of the gaze,” said Hossein Ameri, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at the USC Roski Eye Institute at Keck Medicine of USC.

“In mild cases, the vision loss may be reversible over the course of several months, but in severe cases it is permanent. It affects the central vision — affected individuals may not be able to read or see faces — but it does not affect the peripheral vision.”

Eclipses cause observable change

“Total solar eclipses mostly tell us about the structure of the solar corona and its influence on the solar wind and on the Interplanetary Magnetic Field,” said Edward Rhodes, a professor of astronomy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the principal investigator and operator of USC’s 60-foot solar tower at Mount Wilson.

“During the total solar eclipse of July 1991, that was also only visible as a partial solar eclipse here in Los Angeles, my students and I studied the drop in the Earth’s atmospheric temperature at Mount Wilson and several other locations across Southern California. We found a definite drop in the air temperature during that eclipse, and we published a paper that described these results.”

The sun as symbol

The idea of “The Great American Eclipse” is a compelling one full of metaphor and symbolism, according to Tok Thompson, an associate professor of anthropology and communication at USC Dornsife who studied under Alan Dundes, considered the father of academic folkloric study, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Some have suggested the eclipse is symbolic in bookmarking the global ascendancy of the United States: first in 1918 as a rising power, then in 2017 as a declining one. Others see this as a sign of the downfall of President Donald Trump, who was born during a lunar eclipse, Thompson said.

“What will the next ‘Great American Eclipse’ witness? Will there be any more in 99 years? Few people alive today will be able to bear witness to that one. Instead, for most of us, this is our one chance to witness this major celestial event and, like many other people before us, muse on its import.”

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L.A. will see a partial solar eclipse Monday, but experts see a total opportunity for rare research

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