Jay Pasachoff, who spent his entire life chasing eclipses, will be missed on April 8 | Top Vip News


A total solar eclipse, when the cosmos snaps into place with the worlds aligned like white balls, can be one of the most deeply visceral experiences you can have without ingesting anything illegal.

Some people scream, others cry. Eight times I have gone through this cycle of light, darkness, death and rebirth, feeling the light melt and watching the crown of the sun spread its pale feathery wings across the sky. And it never goes out of style. As you read this article, I will be preparing to go to Dallas, along with my family and old friends, to see my ninth eclipse.

An old friend won’t be there: Jay M. Pasachoff, the longtime professor of astronomy at Williams College. I have been 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 really looking forward to seeing him again next week. But Jay died in late 2022, ending a half-century career as an aggressive cosmic evangelist, as responsible as anyone for the sensational circus of science, wonder and tourism that solar eclipses have become.

“We are umbraphiles,” Dr. Pasachoff wrote in The New York Times in 2010. “Having once been in the umbra, the shadow of the Moon, during a solar eclipse, we are driven to do so again and again, every time the Moon moves between us. the Earth and the Sun.”

When an eclipse occurred, Jay could be found wearing his lucky orange pants and leading expeditions of colleagues, students (many of whom became professional astronomers and eclipse hunters), tourists and friends to corners of every continent. . Many of those who joined their outings experienced the adrenaline-filled pursuit of a few minutes or seconds of magic while hoping it wouldn’t rain. He was the one who knew everyone and pulled the strings to get his students tickets to the most remote parts of the world, often for jobs operating cameras and other instruments, and introducing them to the scientific enterprise.

“Jay is probably responsible for inspiring more college students than anyone to pursue careers in astronomy,” said Stuart Vogel, a retired radio astronomer at the University of Maryland.

His death ended a remarkable streak of success in the pursuit of darkness. He saw 75 eclipses, 36 of which were total. In total, according to the Eclipse Chaser LogDr. Pasachoff spent more than one hour, 28 minutes and 36 seconds (he was very meticulous with the details) in the shadow of the moon.

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

As the world prepares for the last total eclipse to hit the lower 48 states in the next 20 years, it seems strange not to have it on the scene. And I’m not the only one who misses it.

“He was probably the most influential figure in my professional life, and I deeply feel his absence,” 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 chartered by his mentor, Harvard professor Donald Menzel. He was hooked.

After a Ph.D. After graduating from Harvard, Dr. Pasachoff eventually joined Williams College in 1972 and immediately began recruiting eclipse chasers.

Daniel Stinebring, 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. Pasachoff, following his former mentor, Dr. Menzel, hired a pilot and a small plane. He sent his young student to the airport with a fancy Nikon camera and told her to photograph the eclipse while he dangled from the open door of an airplane.

“I had this unobstructed view of the eclipse. And here I was, the only person from Williams who was able to see the eclipse,” Dr. Stinebring recalled.

A year later, in 1973, the young Stinebring 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 of totality. The moment changed his life, he said.

“It just made me feel like if this is what astronomers do for a living, I’m there,” he said.

Dr. Pasachoff, his former students said, did his best to inform the local population about how not to be afraid of the eclipse and how to observe it safely.

Dr. Pasachoff took pride in his preparation, gathering local scientific support and other connections, equipment, lodging and other logistics years before the actual eclipse.

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

In 1983, Dr. Pasachoff arrived in Indonesia for an eclipse expedition sponsored by the National Science Foundation. He discovered that the digital recorder in which all of his data would be stored was broken.

Dr. Pasachoff called his wife, Naomi, a science historian also at Williams College who was home in Massachusetts and who has seen 48 eclipses. He tried to order a new recorder but was told that the official paperwork required to ship the device to Java would take several days. Mr. di Cicco was taken into service. Within 24 hours he renewed his passport, took the recorder and boarded a flight to Indonesia. Mr. di Cicco arrived just one day before the eclipse.

Dr. Pasachoff paid the $4,000 round-trip ticket. A Lufthansa employee told Mr di Cicco it was the most expensive bus ticket he had ever seen.

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

Even with powerful new solar observatories and spacecraft dedicated to observing the sun, there is still science to do during eclipses on Earth, like observing the corona, which continued to encourage Jay.

Dr. Pasachoff prided himself on rarely missing an eclipse and credited the weather with never having been cloudy. He always managed to get the best spots, and Mazatlán in Mexico looked the most promising for 2024.

But he emailed me in 2021 saying lung cancer had spread to his brain and offered me material for an obituary.

Even so, he wrote: “I have not abandoned the idea of ​​going to the Antarctic eclipse on December 4, for which I have three lines of research.” He went and sent eerie photographs of the ghost sun over a frozen horizon, his last excursion into the darkness. Still, he continued planning for the next eclipses.

“You know, there’s one eclipse, and then the next one, and then the next one,” Dr. Reardon said. “I wanted to see all the eclipses and I didn’t want to think there would be one last one.”

He will be alone in the shadows on April 8.

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