What happens when the sun ‘turns off’?

Professors from different backgrounds share their eclipse expertise with Kearney students, community.

What happens when the sun turns off?

Well, it won’t literally turn off, but what can you expect to experience this Aug. 21 near the end of the noon hour when the moon covers the sun and a total solar eclipse occurs, cutting a narrow, dark path through this part of the planet?

Four University of Nebraska at Kearney professors who came to Kearney from four different educational paths can tell you. This past semester they gave talks about the eclipse in the dark of the UNK Planetarium, telling their audiences about this rare celestial event from the vantage points of their four areas of expertise: physics, biology, art and history.

“This is called the great American eclipse for a good reason — the entire North America, the entire Central America and parts of South America will be able to actually see at least the partial eclipse,” said Mariana Lazarova, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy who also is the planetarium’s director. “So you’re talking about hundreds of millions of people looking up in the sky.”

So what happens to this part of the planet when the sun turns off?

It will get darker, colder, Lazarova told her audience.

You will see a black disk over the sun. You will see the pearly white glow of the sun’s corona. You will see the brightest of the stars, and you will see Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury all straddling the sun. Looking across the land at the horizon, in all directions, you will see beyond the moon’s shadow to where the eclipse isn’t experiencing totality, and it will be an eerie twilight of yellow and orange.

Kearney will experience the total eclipse for 1 minute, 54 seconds, starting at 12:57 p.m.

In Lincoln, totality will began at 1:02 p.m. The city lies along the northern edge of the shadow, so totality will be shorter. Even a few miles will matter. If you’re standing on the grass of the State Capitol, you’ll experience totality for 1 minute, 25.5 seconds, but just a few blocks north — on the 50-yard line of Memorial Stadium — you’ll get five seconds less.

Lazarova serves as Nebraska’s coordinator for the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Experiment, called “Citizen CATE.” She will observe the eclipse in Ravenna, Nebraska, while also managing observations of the sun during the eclipse at eight different locations across the state, from Mitchell to Beatrice. And this summer, she’s running a workshop at UNK to train the observers, who are volunteer citizens passionate about astronomy.

According to the project’s website: The goal of CATE is to produce a scientifically unique data set: high-resolution, rapid cadence white light images of the inner corona for 90 minutes.

“The coolest thing about Nebraska is that that path of totality has the longest stretch within the state of Nebraska — close to 500 miles because we’re a pretty long state to begin with,” Lazarova said. “And then it crosses kind of diagonally, from upper left corner to lower right, so the shadow is going to move very fast. It crosses the entire United States in 90 minutes.

“It moves about seven times faster than a passenger airplane, faster than the speed of sound.”

So what happens to animals when the sun turns off?


Nate Bickford, a professor of biology, can tell you about it. (The tongue-in-cheek title of his talk was “Wildlife Behavior When the Sun Turns Off.”)

Some animals in the moon’s shadow, he said, will think it’s a thunderstorm and will hide.

Some birds will fly toward their roosts. Most birds will fall silent. Their songs will begin again as it ends, as if it were daybreak.

Nocturnal animals will act as if it’s the early morning. Cocks will crow. Owls will hoot. Crickets and cicadas will chirp. And then, when the sun emerges, they will stop.

Spiders will begin to dismantle their webs in the dark. Then build them back up.

Mosquitos will come out to bite. Then vanish.

Creatures that live in caves or holes will just keep sleeping, Bickford said, because their internal clocks are too strong to wake them up.

“And how about dragons?” he said, smiling. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

To prepare for his talk, Bickford also researched mythical animals associated with eclipses. He found stories from China about how a dragon would eat the sun or the moon. He found stories of the Korean fire dogs that would steal the sun or the moon. He found a story from an indigenous tribe of North America about how a mean bear got in a fight with the sun and bit it.

And then for fun, he said, he googled “werewolves” and “solar eclipses.”

He showed his audience a scary photo of a Hollywood werewolf, its jagged teeth bared.

“Should we keep our eyes open and look?”

People laughed.

Bickford said that he’s not an expert in animal behavior. But preparing for this talk, he said, he found that no one seems to be an expert in animal behavior during total solar eclipses — there’s just not a lot of solid research out there yet.

That realization inspired him to study this summer’s eclipse himself. So along with UNK biology colleague Dustin Ranglack, he sought and won a grant from NASA to study animal behavior during the August eclipse.

He encouraged the people who attended his talk to “science the heck out of it” as well and consider becoming “citizen scientists.”

“Your research may not be earth-shattering, but who cares? It’s cool,” he said. “So if it’s something you’re interested in, find somebody else who’s interested in it and do a little study.”

So what happens to the art world when the sun turns off?


Derrick Burbul, a professor of art and design, talked about the artistic history of eclipses, focusing mainly on photography.

Art is just a part of the stories we tell, he said, and stories are important. Some researchers believe our ability to communicate stories, he said, is a big reason that humans have been so successful as a species.

“How do you want to tell your story?”

How should you photograph it?

Remember a few things, he said:

Plan your shot ahead of time. What do you want to juxtapose with the eclipse in the foreground, for example? What story do you want to tell?
Learn how to use your camera at night, so you’ll be ready for the totality.
Practice. Practice. Practice.

“And don’t try to do too much,” Burbul said. “You want to enjoy the experience. You want to see it. You don’t want to be so caught up in your equipment that you don’t actually experience what’s going on.”

So what happens to humans when the sun turns off?

A sense of the sacred.

Eclipses have evoked wonder and awe and have sparked something spiritual inside of people, whether they were religious or not, said James Rohrer, a history professor whose talk centered on the religious significances of solar eclipses across time and cultures.

“No matter how you respond,” Rohrer said, “you will be in good company with many people who have gone before us.”

Christians, Muslims and Jews have historically used eclipses as occasions to reflect upon the glory of the Creator God, Rohrer said, and in modern post-Enlightenment times Christians have also used eclipses as a way of trying to prove to non-Christians in colonized lands the superiority of Western Science and Christianity by showing them that their traditional stories about eclipses were false.

But, Rohrer said, this insistence upon debunking the myths of other people ignores the way that mythology conveys meaning. In a very real sense, stories about dragons or demons eating the sun, although not grounded upon empirical science, nonetheless convey spiritual truth that makes sense within the framework of traditional cosmology.

Eclipses have evoked intellectual curiosity.

Eclipses have inspired the poets and the preachers. The teachers.

And the students — young people like Kayla Gade, a UNK Honors Program student who attended most of the talks at the campus planetarium.

“This is something that really made me proud of UNK,” says Kayla, a humanities major who also has a strong interest in science. “The fact that UNK did this series really emphasizes to me this interdisciplinary approach is something that UNK values.

“And I think that says something about the student experience here at UNK.”

This coming eclipse will be a rare chance for all the people of Nebraska to experience astronomy and biology and art and history in action all at once and to stand in the dark, just as people have done since the dawn of time.

And, together, look up.

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