Curiosity Podcast Transcript: What Will We See During the 2017 Eclipse?

Why is the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, going to be such a huge deal? Michelle Nichols, educator and astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, joins us on a special episode of the Curiosity Podcast to explain everything from the science to the community surrounding this astronomical event.

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Curiosity Podcast Transcript

Cody Gough:

Everyone has been talking about the great solar eclipse of 2017. Why is it such a huge deal?

Michelle Nichols:

Sometimes words fail me in this particular case, to try to describe how different of an experience this actually is. There's really nothing like it, it's a really amazing phenomenon that I just can't stress enough that if you think you've seen it on TV or on the internet, you really haven't.

Cody Gough:

Hi, I'm Cody Gough from curiosity.com. On today's special bonus episode, we're going to talk about the 2017 solar eclipse. Every week, we explore what we don't know, because curiosity makes you smarter. This is the curiosity podcast. On August 21st, 2017, there is going to be a solar eclipse, but this one is special. So special in fact, that the curiosity team will be viewing the eclipse alongside NASA in Carbondale, Illinois, and will share the big event on Facebook live. More on that later, but first, why is this eclipse in particular such a huge deal? I didn't know, so I sat down with Michelle Nichols from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago to find some answers. By the end of this conversation, I literally couldn't even tell you how much I'm looking forward to August 21st. Here it is.

I'm here with Michelle Nichols, the director of public observing for the Adler Planetarium. Thanks for joining me.

Michelle Nichols:

Thanks for having me.

Cody Gough:

What does a director of public observing do?

Michelle Nichols:

Well, it's a new title, it's a position that didn't exist a few weeks ago. Basically, I handle all of the Adler's programs that have to do with telescopes and looking up at the sky, so scopes in the city, where we take telescopes out to various places around Chicago, and just anyone walking by can take a look, handling our observatory on site, so training volunteers to run the observatory, and handling our galaxy rider outreach program. We take telescopes out to places that we just want to reach that don't normally get reached, so in this case, this year it's going to be southern Illinois, getting ready for the eclipse.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, so we have to talk about that, that's the elephant in the room, of course, because we're recording this a few weeks prior to the eclipse that everyone has been talking about, the great solar eclipse of 2017. Why is it such a huge deal?

Michelle Nichols:

What I find amazing is eclipses happen on average about once a year, but they're not visible from the same location all the time, and so on average, a single location on Earth will see a total solar eclipse, where the moon completely covers the sun, maybe every 375 years or so. This particular eclipse is so amazing because it's crossing over the continental United States, and basically the entire country is within a day's drive pretty much, or a long day's drive, maybe a little bit longer than a day's drive for some of the more extreme ends of the country.

Ashley Hamer:

Hey, Ashley here. We checked, and while 12 million people live within the path of totality, 200 million could get there within a day's drive. We've got all sorts of facts like this on our solar eclipse instruction manual on curiosity.com.

Michelle Nichols:

We all can reach the path where the moon is going to cover the sun, and that's why this one I think is so special.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, because I thought I remember as a kid, maybe 1990, around there somewhere, there was a lot of news about an eclipse, but I just thought it was a thing that happened somewhat regularly, like you said, every year.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, about every year. What's different about a solar eclipse versus some other astronomical phenomenon, it's not that they're rare in terms of the frequency of how often they happen, they're rare because you have to be in a very specific place at a very specific time on a really specific date in order to see one. Outside of that narrow path, you will possibly see what's called a partial solar eclipse, where the moon partly covers the sun, and the farther away you get from that path, we call it the path of totality, the farther away that you get from that path, the less and less of the sun that's covered by the moon.

It's really amazing that so many people want to try to see one, because like I said, a lot of these eclipses, they happen, but they're usually over water, because 70% of our planet is water, or they're in inhospitable locations, or they're in very unpopulated locations. In this case, 12 million people basically already live within the path of totality for this next eclipse on August 21st, and 300 million people are within a day's drive, so this one could potentially reach quite a few people.

Cody Gough:

Now, you mentioned being directly in a very specific place at a very specific time. Let's say I go down to Carbondale, Illinois, that's where it is in Illinois, or I go to Salem, Washington, there's some other towns-

Michelle Nichols:

Oregon.

Cody Gough:

Salem, Oregon?

Michelle Nichols:

Salem, Oregon.

Cody Gough:

Okay, Salem, Oregon, for example, you said a very specific place, what kind of radius are we talking about, does everybody in Carbondale have to get within like a big circle?

Michelle Nichols:

No, that'd be great. No, not quite that specific, but not too far off compared to the size of the Earth. We're talking, for this particular eclipse, on average about a 70-mile wide path. Carbondale is near the middle of the path, so imagine a line 35 miles to the northeast, 35 miles to the southwest, and you have to be within that spot. The closer you are to the middle of the path, the longer the moon will cover the sun, the closer you are to the edges of the path, the shorter in duration that eclipse is going to be.

Ashley Hamer:

You can catch the total solar eclipse anywhere along that path, but there's a reason you keep hearing about cities like Salem, Oregon and Carbondale, Illinois. Oregon is the first US state that gets to see the eclipse, and Salem is in the path of totality. Since it's an hour's drive from Portland, that makes it mighty convenient for a lot of people. Carbondale, Illinois is super special. Not only is it just about seven miles from the path's center line, but it's only about 15 miles from the point of greatest duration. That means that people watching in Carbondale will get the longest eclipse there is.

Cody Gough:

Okay, and how long will the total eclipse be occurring?

Michelle Nichols:

Totality, where the moon 100% covers the sun, in Carbondale, two minutes and 38 seconds.

Cody Gough:

Two minutes and 38 seconds?

Michelle Nichols:

That's it, yep, that's what everyone is getting all fired up about, is two minutes and 38 seconds. In McCanda, Illinois, which is just close to Carbondale, they are right on the center line, so much so that they've painted an orange line on the road in the town, it goes right through a building. They've got the center line of this eclipse actually painted on the ground. They will get two minutes and 41 seconds.

Cody Gough:

Do you know what building it is?

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, I do. The guy who owns it, he's an artist, and he makes jewelry and other really interesting art, and he makes eclipse art, or he has been making eclipse-related art and jewelry, so it's pretty cool.

Cody Gough:

I bet.

Michelle Nichols:

He's got, when you go through the building, out back behind the building, there's this kind of secret garden that he's built back there, and it's just gorgeous. One thing that I want to make sure that people, especially in northern Illinois, who maybe have never been to southern Illinois, is that whole area is beautiful, it's just trees and hills, and it's just really really really pretty. To see this orange line on the ground going through this artist's shop and his workshop too, you can watch him creating stuff right there, and you go out in the back and there's this really pretty green and lush garden that he has built back there, and this orange line painted on the ground, showing you where the center line of this eclipse is going to be.

Cody Gough:

Of course, we're located in Illinois, we have listeners all around the world. You mentioned the path of totality, I thought I saw a map, and it starts basically in Washington, and does it end in Florida?

Michelle Nichols:

It goes from Oregon to South Carolina.

Cody Gough:

South Carolina, so that pretty much is, I mean that's coast to coast.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, literally coast to coast, yep.

Cody Gough:

It really couldn't be more convenient.

Michelle Nichols:

Nope. The last time we had literally coast to coast eclipse totality path in the United States was 99 years ago.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Michelle Nichols:

This one has a nice path to be able to get to.

Cody Gough:

Are you tired of talking about this eclipse yet?

Michelle Nichols:

Not yet. Ask me at about 2:30 p.m. on August 21st. I think at that point, I'm at least going to tell people, "Okay, I'm done smiling," I may still talk about the eclipse, actually I probably will, especially if it's clear and we get to see it, because the one thing that could kill us is clouds. At least it'll get dark, no matter what it's going to get dark in the path.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, I'm curious, what will it look like? Is this going to be some thing where the heavens open and it's some grand ... I mean, when the totality occurs and you're staring at the sun, which you can do only when it is completely eclipsing the sun, only at that exact two-minute window can you watch it without any kind of solar sunglasses or anything, which we'll talk about in a minute, but during that two minutes, what am I seeing, and why are people going to travel thousands of miles to see it?

Michelle Nichols:

I've seen one total solar eclipse, and the astronomer in me says, "This is exactly what's going to happen, it's going to be these steps," and I'll get to those steps in a sec, but once you see it, you get this instantaneous recognition of why people were terrified of this phenomenon if they didn't know it was going to happen, because it looks like a hole in the sky.

Ashley Hamer:

That hole in the sky has given birth to countless myths and legends throughout history. West African cultures believed eclipses were a battle between the sun and the moon, and a sign that people should reconcile their differences. The Greeks believed that they were a sign that the gods were angry with humanity, which is why one that happened over a battlefield in 585 BC brought a swift end to a war. A lot, and I mean a lot of cultures believe eclipses happen when some creature or another tries to eat the sun. Ancient China believed it was a celestial dragon. Vietnam blamed a hungry frog, and the Vikings said it was sky wolves.

The coolest story is probably the one where the Hindu demon Rahu stole an immortality potion, but Vishnu caught him and cut off his head before he could swallow it. As a result, his body died, but his head lives forever, occasionally eating the sun and moon, only to have them drop out the bottom of his throat hole. We've got a great article about all of that on curiosity.com.

Michelle Nichols:

What happens is, the moon starts to cover the sun, and for the entire United States, for all of Canada, so basically all of North America including Alaska, all of Central America, northern South America, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Greenland, and some folks I think in far far far western Europe, far far far western Africa, and far far far eastern Russia, we are all going to see a partial solar eclipse in some way. It could be right at sunrise, it could be right at sunset, depending on where you are. Also, the closer or farther you are from that path, the more or less of the sun is covered by the moon.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Michelle Nichols:

Let's pretend you're in the path of totality. The moon starts to cover the sun, and this takes awhile, this whole process from beginning to end takes almost three hours, so it takes awhile. You're watching, you've got your safe solar viewers on, and you're looking up every now and then and watching, and maybe an hour or so in, you happen to look down underneath a tree, and you notice you can start to see little eclipses on the ground underneath the trees, as the little pinholes in the leaves and between the leaves act like pinhole projectors, which those little holes will basically produce a focused image of the sun and the eclipse on the ground.

You happen to notice, as the eclipse is happening in the sky, you can actually watch it on the ground underneath a tree, so don't forget to look down as much as you do look up, just make sure you take the glasses off when you're looking down, or else you won't see anything.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Ashley Hamer:

I think we need to repeat that. The spaces between tree leaves project an image of the eclipse on the ground, like what? When I learned this, I was floored, but then I wondered, "Wait, why don't tree leaves project an image of the sun all the time?" Well, it turns out they do, we just don't notice. Next time you're under a tree in daylight, look at the sidewalk. You'll notice the sun comes through not in the shape of the leaves, but in hundreds of glowing circles. How cool is that?

Michelle Nichols:

Then a few minutes, maybe 10 minutes, 15 minutes-ish, something like that, prior to the eclipse, you start to kind of notice the lighting is looking sort of strange. If you didn't know that this was happening, you might not give it a second thought, or you go, "Well, this looks a little stranger than normal, okay." Then a few minutes prior to the eclipse, you start to notice that the sky is getting a little bit darker, you have less and less of the sun is covered by the moon, now you're talking a sliver of it. If you look underneath the trees, you're noticing just a little sliver of sun in those eclipse images under the trees. You've got your glasses on. A few seconds prior to the eclipse, the sky is definitely getting dark, you're noticing it for sure.

In some places, the wind might die down, in others, the wind might pick up. What some folks have experienced with eclipses is the clouds suddenly come in, like a sky that didn't have clouds in it before might have clouds in it now, just some weather phenomenon happening, because you're actually cooling off the air. You may see clouds either move in or clear out, people have noticed both that happen.

Cody Gough:

Because it cools off the atmosphere so quickly, it actually changes-

Michelle Nichols:

It can change the dynamics of what's going on in the atmosphere, and there's going to be some citizen scientists out there for this one, noting what the weather change is in their particular location, because up to now it's sort of anecdotal. People go, "Oh yeah, the wind picks up." Well, someone else says, "Nope, the wind dies down," or, "No no, it got cloudy," "No, it cleared out right before the eclipse," there have been people with all sorts of stories about what the weather has done to them. The moon is just about to cover the sun, and you're looking through your glasses, you notice this bright spot of sun on the edge of the moon, and that is the last bit of sunlight passing through a deep valley on the edge of the moon, we call it the diamond ring effect. If you see several of those little dots, little bright spots, those are called Baily's beads, and if you're looking for an explanation of it online, it's spelled B-A-I-L-Y apostrophe S, it refers to a scientist's last name.

Baily's beads is when you see several of these little spots, which is the sunlight passing through a few valleys on the edge of the moon. For this one, with the arrangement of the moon, I think we're only going to get one valley. It's called the diamond ring effect because it looks like there's a diamond on the ring of the moon, basically.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Michelle Nichols:

If it's about three seconds prior to the eclipse, no more than three, and if you're not sure about this time, don't try it, but you can actually quickly take your glasses off and watch the sun splotch disappear. Again, only if you are absolutely certain, you know the timing to the second in your area, you don't want to take your glasses off too early. If you're not sure, then just leave your glasses on 'til the sun disappears. Then, if you are in that path of totality, the moon has completely covered the sun. What appears in the sky is this white whispyness around the moon and the sun, this is called a corona. "Corona" is the Latin word for crown, so it looks like a crown around the moon.

The corona is only about as bright as the full moon in the sky, which is why we can never see it any other way, because the sun is just too darn bright. If you have 99% of the sun covered, even that 1% of sun is still 1,000 times brighter.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Michelle Nichols:

That's why you need to be in that path of totality. The corona appears, you're noticing detail within the corona, you might notice little pink splotches around the edge of the moon, that's little whisps of gas coming off the sun.

Cody Gough:

Like sun flares?

Michelle Nichols:

They're called prominences, so think of it as a gentle flare. It's not a flare, but it's a gentle arc of gas. You may see them, you may not, it just kind of depends on what the sun is doing that day, and then you may notice, you kind of look around the sky a little bit, you may see some bright stars and planets in the sky. It's going to be about as bright as a full moon evening, but the horizon right around you is bright. Then you get no more than two minutes and 41 seconds, at most, depending on where you are, or less. Places right on the very edge of that path might get three seconds of totality, maybe five. A little farther in, you might get a minute. Farther toward the center of the path, you may get a couple minutes, or two minutes 20, two minutes 30, whatever.

You may notice the temperature drop. If you're around insects, crickets might start chirping, because they think it's night time, birds might go to roost in trees, because they think it's night time. If you're on a farm, you may notice the cows coming in toward the barn because they think it's night time. Noticing all these things, but you only have a couple minutes to enjoy it before that little splotch of sun starts to appear again on the other side of the moon, where the sunlight is shining through a different deep valley again, and you get that diamond ring effect, you go, "One, two, three," you see the splotch, and then put your glasses back on. Then it's over, and then everybody kind of forgets about the rest of it, as the moon slides away from the sun.

Being that I've seen one of these, the only thing I remember after the totality time period was champagne corks popping, people getting thrown into the pool. We were on a cruise ship, and so a cruise ship is actually a great place to consider seeing an eclipse, because if it's cloudy where the ship is supposed to go, you can move the ship in advance, if you know. Anyway, so folks got thrown into the pool, and there was all sorts of cheering, and the ship captains turned the horns on on their ships, and after that, people kind of partied a bit, and it was over.

Cody Gough:

You make it sound so beautiful, you're making me want to go see that.

Michelle Nichols:

That's exactly what I hope people will consider doing, and if it's too late to consider this one, we get to do this all over again April 8th, 2024.

Cody Gough:

2024?

Michelle Nichols:

That's the next one, yep.

Cody Gough:

That's the next time it's going to cross over the continental United States?

Michelle Nichols:

Correct, yep.

Cody Gough:

Okay.

Michelle Nichols:

Crossing over in Carbondale, Illinois.

Cody Gough:

Oh, again?

Michelle Nichols:

We get to see two in less than seven years.

Cody Gough:

Wow, lucky Carbondale.

Michelle Nichols:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cody Gough:

Stealing it for themselves.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, the only problem is it's April, it could snow for all we know.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, weather has been a bit tricky lately.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, but that one, the path is going to be, instead of, this next one is northwest to southeast, this other path in 2024 is going to go basically southwest to northeast. It's going to come up through Mexico and up through Texas and through Carbondale, toward the northeast. Austin, Texas is going to see that one, there'll be some larger cities in the path for the 2024 one, but again, it's April, we always have to remember that, and the weather could be highly unpredictable in April.

Cody Gough:

True, and then clouds could blow in, or they could blow out.

Michelle Nichols:

Exactly, yep.

Cody Gough:

If it's maybe snowing, maybe it'll snow more or snow less. You narrated that beautifully, I mean that sounded like a scene out of a really beautiful audiobook.

Michelle Nichols:

Excellent.

Cody Gough:

Seriously, it's a wonderful-

Michelle Nichols:

From personal experience.

Cody Gough:

In terms of once that ... Again, the path of totality, it's right there and you've got that two minutes, I mean what was the most striking to you? I mean, just looking at it and seeing the kind of outer light from the sun, versus the fact you can see stars and planets and things with your naked eye sounds pretty phenomenal. Is the whole thing just awe-striking?

Michelle Nichols:

Yes. We use the word "awesome" quite liberally these days, but that is the best word to use. It is awesome, it is inspiring awe. Sometimes words fail me at this particular case to try to describe how different of an experience this actually is. There's really nothing like it. You say, "Oh, I've seen a lunar eclipse." Yeah, big deal, we saw four of those in the past few years. Okay, that's great, that's fantastic.

Cody Gough:

You almost said "awesome".

Michelle Nichols:

I almost did. See, I use that word rather liberally.

Cody Gough:

Yeah.

Michelle Nichols:

Yes, we want people to come out to the Adler on January 31st for the next lunar eclipse, because it's a great way to view the skies in a big group, but being under the moon's shadow, and being in the right place at the right time, and knowing that for thousands and thousands of years, people looked up at this and they were either fearful of it, or later on when we started learning more about eclipses and about the sun, getting more science information from them. It's a really amazing phenomenon that I just can't stress enough that if you think you've seen it on TV or on the internet, you really haven't. Being in a group is also a great way to do it.

For my first one, it was fantastic being in a large group. It was about 600 people on the cruise ship, and being in that large of a group, but it wasn't too big, so you could still move around, you could still get a sense of what was going on, but you could still be in your own little place too. In Carbondale, they're expecting thousands of people, which is also going to be amazing, I'm looking forward to hearing an seeing everyone else's reactions.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Michelle Nichols:

Then someday maybe, someday in the future, I'd love to maybe just go and see one of these in a small group, just to see what that's like, but got to get through this one, and maybe the 2024 one I'll go someplace else to see, just to see something else.

Cody Gough:

I'm glad the one is coming in 2024, so all this information is going to be really relevant.

Michelle Nichols:

Absolutely.

Cody Gough:

If you miss it on the 2017, look forward to that one.

Michelle Nichols:

Yep.

Cody Gough:

Speaking of looking up, whenever an eclipse is coming, I see all these warnings and alerts everywhere, all over, and I am terrified of eclipses, because I feel like if I glance up at the wrong moment, I will go blind immediately for the rest of my life.

Michelle Nichols:

When you glance up at the sun now, do you go blind?

Cody Gough:

No.

Michelle Nichols:

Okay.

Cody Gough:

All right, that's good to know. Why is it such a big, huge deal?

Michelle Nichols:

Because people are, excuse the pun, focused on the sun at that point, where they go, "Oh, I'm paying attention to the sun today. Maybe not yesterday, maybe not the day after, but today I'm going to pay attention to the sun." Eclipses are no more dangerous than any other time viewing the sun. If you wouldn't normally stare at the sun, you don't stare at the sun during an eclipse, except if the moon 100% covers the sun. That's that path that you have to be within to be able to see that. If you just follow those safety precautions, you get those safe certified solar viewing glasses, you look down under a tree and you can see some eclipses under the tree, some images, then it's fine.

Ashley Hamer:

There are lots of fake eclipse glasses out there. Search "eclipse" on curiosity.com for our guide, to make sure you've got the right pair.

Michelle Nichols:

We actually, humans have a biological reaction to looking at the sun. You glance over at the sun, you go, "Oh, oh," you screw your eyes down, and you kind of turn away from it. That's your normal reaction, you have to purposefully overcome that natural reaction to stare at the sun, so that's what you don't want to do. The one thing to remember is with this eclipse, especially if you're not anywhere near the path of totality, when you just glance up at the sun, you're not going to easily see the moon covering the sun, so we don't recommend anyone does that either.

Cody Gough:

Okay, so don't be terrified either.

Michelle Nichols:

Don't be terrified of it. Your pets don't need solar viewing glasses, we've had that question before.

Cody Gough:

Really?

Michelle Nichols:

Really. Think of it this way, our pets are smarter than we are, they don't look at the sun.

Cody Gough:

I know lots of animals that are smarter than I am.

Michelle Nichols:

There you go, your dog is fine, your cat is fine. If you have like a four-year-old, a three-year-old, they're kind of running around and you're afraid that they might look at the sun, do they normally look at the sun now? I bet they don't, and if they have no idea what's going on, yeah, get them a pair of safe solar viewing glasses, but for the most part they're probably not going to pay too much attention to what's going on in the sky. I wouldn't worry too much or get too freaked out about really small ones, but just use your common sense. Don't stare at the sun, get your safe solar viewing glasses. If you're totally freaked out, just watch it online.

Cody Gough:

You know, I watched a video that said if you take a picture or video with your cell phone, that you should put the solar viewing glasses over the camera of the cell phone before pointing at the sun.

Michelle Nichols:

Sure, yeah.

Cody Gough:

But if you're pointing at the sun with a camera and you're watching the viewfinder, that's not going to damage your eyes, is it?

Michelle Nichols:

No, if you've got the, call it an eyeglass, that eye lens of the safe solar viewing glasses, put it over your camera, actually I would recommend getting an extra pair of those glasses just for this, tear the temples off, tear the two pieces, the two lenses apart from each other, so you've got just one lens. Then tape it over, like duct tape it, electrical tape it, make it so that there's no light coming in from the side of that piece, so that no sunlight can get in there. If you've got that lens totally covered and you point it at the sun ... Now, you want to make sure that you've got safe glasses over your eyes, so that if you glance up at the sun, you're not going to damage your eyesight, but as long as you've got the lens of the safe glasses over the camera and you're looking at the screen, you're fine. I've actually done that myself, and my camera is fine, my eyesight is fine.

Cody Gough:

If you're looking at the screen, you still have to have the filter over the camera?

Michelle Nichols:

Yes.

Cody Gough:

Why is that? The screen can hurt your eyes?

Michelle Nichols:

No, the screen won't hurt your eyes, but you've got so much light coming into the camera, you'll fry the camera. If you wouldn't normally point your digital camera or even your regular camera at the sun, you don't want to do it during an eclipse either, unless it's during totality. If it's during totality, the moon covers the sun 100%, take that material off and then you can take a picture, you can try. One thing I would highly recommend if people are actually going to the path, it's their very first experience seeing an eclipse, the eclipse is just about to happen, and it happens, put the camera down. Put the electronics down, don't Facebook live this, just don't. Just put it all down, enjoy the eclipse, let it wash over you, let the experience wash over you.

Buy someone's professional picture later, their pictures are going to be so much better than yours will ever be, and your picture is probably going to look like millions of other people's pictures on a cell phone. Buy someone's professional picture taken with a really nice camera, someone who knows what they're doing.

Cody Gough:

Put the selfie stick away.

Michelle Nichols:

Put the selfie stick away.

Ashley Hamer:

I guess this is as good a time as any to let you know that the Curiosity editors will be in Carbondale with the eclipse, to broadcast the event on Facebook live. We'll be in a stadium with at least 12,000 people, NASA will be there, there will be marching bands and cosplayers and astronomers, and it's going to be awesome. You should definitely tune in.

Michelle Nichols:

Because the phrase that we like to use is, every solar eclipse lasts eight seconds, because that's what it feels like, is you may have two minutes and 41 seconds, it's going to feel like eight seconds. It's going to fly by in an instant. Being as someone who has been on the news and been on news programs and radio programs as much as I have, I can attest to the fact that yeah, you've got a two minute segment, oh my goodness, does that go by fast. You don't realize when you're doing something fun, it just flies by.

Cody Gough:

Taking all of that in-

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, exactly.

Cody Gough:

Like the whole sky is lit up, there's a lot of sky to look at.

Michelle Nichols:

Exactly, and you're going to run out of time, so just put it all away and deal with it later.

Cody Gough:

You work at a planetarium, you've worked at a planetarium for a couple decades. When you're looking through a telescope, or you're looking at, again, deep space, seeing stars and planets and things like that, even that totally doesn't compare to the whole eclipse experience.

Michelle Nichols:

I would agree with that, although my goal as director of public observing is to get eyeballs to the eyepiece, because most of the people I encounter have never looked through a telescope before. Seeing Saturn and Jupiter especially through a telescope, or seeing the sun through a telescope, they start to look like places. They look like little tiny versions of the pictures you've seen in magazines, and I've had people kind of jokingly say, "Oh, you stuck a picture in front of the telescope, that's really what this is." I'm like, "Nope, this is a telescope, not a microscope, it's made for seeing far, not made for seeing up close." No, we can't put a picture in front of a telescope and have you actually see it.

Cody Gough:

What's so special about Saturn and Jupiter?

Michelle Nichols:

Because Jupiter, you can see two darker cloud bands on Jupiter and its atmosphere, and you can see up to four of its brightest, largest moons. For Saturn, you can see the rings, and the two planets, they look like disks, they look like little tiny round circles, and so they're not just little points of light. When you look at them up in the sky, it's just a dot of bright light. When you look at it through the telescope, it starts to look like an actual place. I've had people cry when they've seen Saturn, I've had people give me a big hug, we've had people cheer, jump up and down. I had a woman once who, after we were all done, we packed up the telescope, I was putting it in my car, and she said, "You know what? Can you show me where the big dipper is in the sky?"

Of course it's not really something you'd see through a telescope, it's just pointing out where it is. Luckily, the way the building was situated, it was low enough, I said, "Oh, okay yeah, I see where it is, it's right over your building, so come on over here." I pointed it out, where it was, right over the building, and she screamed and she gave me a huge hug, and she started to get tears in her eyes. She said, "I've been waiting for someone for most of my life to show me where that was in the sky." I don't know why it was so overpowering for her, she didn't tell me that, but that's probably a personal story, but that's not an uncommon reaction when people look through the telescope.

Most of the time, a lot of it is people just with these humongous smiles on their faces. That's the really really fun part of my job.

Cody Gough:

That's wild, and you mentioned those two planets are not our closest neighbors, but I'm guessing just because they're so gigantic, they're more visible.

Michelle Nichols:

Correct, yes, that's exactly right. Venus is our closest planetary neighbor, and it is extraordinarily bright in the sky, just because it's totally covered by clouds, and those clouds are very reflective, and it's very close. What's kind of neat to think about is, what would we look like from Venus? We'd be rather bright too, actually because the clouds and the water on Earth reflect a lot of light. That would be kind of neat to think about, what would be look like if we went there?

Cody Gough:

Well, if it's our closest neighbor, we're always going to Mars. Well, I mean we're not always going to Mars, but we're pretty into Mars. Why not be into Venus?

Michelle Nichols:

There are so many scientists out there who would say, "That's a great question, and we wish we would send spacecraft to Venus more often," because Venus is basically a greenhouse gone wrong. It's so hot and so, I'm using this word as the small "h", it's so hellish because the average surface temperature on Venus is right around 870 degrees or so. Then imagine, so if anyone's listening to this in the car or in a room, imagine the room that you're in, add in 90 times more air pressure than you've got normally, and that gives you a sense of how much air is crushing down on you. It's hotter than the clean setting of your oven, it's more air pressure than you're definitely used to walking around on the surface of Earth. It's just a nasty place.

Cody Gough:

Yeah.

Ashley Hamer:

Venus's greenhouse effect has been an elephant in the room when it comes to talk about climate change. In his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan pointed out how the early atmosphere of Venus was pretty similar to the one Earth has now, but a runaway greenhouse effect, which has a lot to do with its proximity to the sun, led to its current hellish state. That's one big reason scientists want to learn more about it. To quote my boo, Sagan, "The surface environment of Venus is a warning. Something disastrous can happen to a planet, rather like our own."

Michelle Nichols:

But there's so much that we would love to learn about it, it's just Mars has been really popular because of NASA "following the water", because we've seen pretty good evidence that a liquid water ocean and lakes and rivers and such used to exist on Mars in the distant past. They want to find out the answer to the ultimate question, did life ever exist on Mars? Well, they had to establish that liquid water was there in the past, and then we have to kind of figure out how long ago are we talking? We know it's a pretty long time ago, could Mars have been hospitable to life? The answer is yes.

Now that we've answered those questions, the next question is, did life exist on Mars in the past? We've got the next rover coming up in 2020, is going to go there and start to answer questions related to that.

Cody Gough:

Space is freaking awesome.

Michelle Nichols:

I agree, thank you.

Cody Gough:

I've heard, I've heard that somewhere, I'm not sure where. Again, thank you for joining me. I was with Michelle Nichols, director of public observing with the Adler Planetarium. If you missed the 2017 solar eclipse, don't worry, there's one coming up in 20-

Michelle Nichols:

2024.

Cody Gough:

2024.

Michelle Nichols:

April 8th.

Cody Gough:

Great, thank you so much for joining me.

Michelle Nichols:

Thanks for having me.

Cody Gough:

Hang on, we're not finished. If you've been paying attention to the Curiosity app recently, then now is your chance to earn some extra credit. Many of history's greatest minds, including Beethoven, Darwin, and Kierkegaard shared a habit that they considered vital to their daily work routine. Today's question is, "What habit can you add to your work day to boost your mood, counter fatigue, and cut food cravings?" The answer in just a minute.

If you can't make it to the path of totality to watch the eclipse, then don't worry, we've got you covered. As Ashley mentioned earlier, you can follow Curiosity on Facebook for videos, interviews and trivia live from Carbondale on August 21st. We'll be in a stadium with at least 12,000 people, including NASA, marching bands, and people dressed up as stormtroopers from Star Wars. We'll talk to as many experts as we can, including scientists from places like the Adler Planetarium, NASA, everywhere in between. In the week leading up to the eclipse, you'll be able to learn all about eclipses and space, and all the usual everything else we cover, which is everything, on curiosity.com.

When you visit our website, you can also find links to the curiosity podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud, and everywhere else podcasts exist, and you can email your questions or comments to podcast@curiosity.com, and leave us a rating and review if you really want to help us out. Here at Curiosity, we cover a wide variety of topics every day, and that brings us to today's extra credit answer. You can join some of the most well known minds in history with this simple self improvement habit, take a walk. A 2015 study concluded that taking a walk break during your work day gives you immediate benefits.

A 2016 study found that taking just a five minute stroll each hour in the work day can boost your mood, counter fatigue, and cut food cravings more than a single 30-minute exercise session. Some of the greats like Charles Dickens would take a cool three hour stroll every day, so don't worry, it's hard to overdo it. The easiest way to learn more about habits like this and so much more is to download the Curiosity app for your Android or iOS device. Editor extraordinaire Ashley Hamer was a rockstar as always this week, so thanks for the fast facts, Ashley, and thank you for listening. Stay safe during the eclipse on August 21st, and please tell your friends about this podcast, so they don't miss out on all the action.

For this special edition of the Curiosity podcast, I'm Cody Gough.

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Written By Curiosity Staff August 15, 2017