April 13, 2024

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

A total solar eclipse, when the cosmos clicks 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 went through this cycle of light, dark, death and rebirth, feeling the light melt and seeing the sun’s crown spread its pale feathery wings across the sky. And it never gets old. As you read this article, I will be getting ready to go to Dallas, along with family and old friends, to see my ninth eclipse.

One old friend will not be present: Jay M. Pasachoff, who was a longtime astronomy professor at Williams College. I’ve been under the moon three times with him: on the island of Java, in Indonesia, in Oregon and on a small island off Turkey.

I was looking forward to seeing him again next week. But Jay died in late 2022, ending a half-century career as the insistent cosmic evangelist, as responsible as anyone for the sensational circus of science, wonder and tourism that solar eclipses have become.

“We are umbrophiles,” Dr. Pasachoff wrote in The New York Times in 2010. “Having been in the umbra, the Moon’s shadow, during a solar eclipse, we are led to do so repeatedly, whenever the Moon moves between 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 chasers), tourists, and friends to corners of every continent. Many who took part in his tours were introduced to the adrenaline-fueled chase of a few minutes or seconds of magic, hoping it wouldn’t rain. He was the one who knew everyone and pulled 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 students to pursue careers in astronomy than any other person,” said Stuart Vogel, a retired radio astronomer at the University of Maryland.

His death ended a remarkable run of success in the pursuit of darkness. He saw 75 eclipses, 36 of which were total. In all, according to the Eclipse Chaser Log, Dr. Pasachoff spent more than an hour, 28 minutes, and 36 seconds (he was a stickler for detail) in the moon’s shadow.

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

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

“He was probably the most influential figure in my professional life, and I deeply miss his absence,” said Dan Seaton, a solar physicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.

Pasachoff was a 16-year-old freshman at Harvard 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. from Harvard, Dr. Pasachoff finally entered Williams College in 1972 and immediately began recruiting eclipse chasers.

Daniel Stinebring, now 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, channeling 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 him to photograph the eclipse by hanging from an open plane door.

“I had this unobstructed view of the eclipse. And, you know, here I was, the only person from Williams who saw the eclipse,” Dr. recalled.

A year later, in 1973, young Mr. Stinebring found himself on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya with Dr. Pasachoff and teams from 14 other universities waiting for the longest eclipse of the century, about seven minutes of totality. . The moment changed my life, he said.

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

Dr. Pasachoff, his former students said, went to great lengths to inform local people not to be afraid of the eclipse and how to observe it safely.

Dr. Pasachoff took pride in his preparation, lining up local scientific support and other connections, equipment, housing 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 on which all his data would be stored was broken.

Pasachoff called his wife, Naomi, a science historian also at Williams College who was in Massachusetts and had seen 48 eclipses. She attempted to order a new recorder, but was told that the official documentation needed to ship the device to Java would take several days. Mr. di Cicco was placed on duty. Within 24 hours, he renewed his passport, grabbed his recorder and boarded a flight to Indonesia. Mr. di Cicco arrived just one day before the eclipse.

Dr. Pasachoff paid for the $4,000 round-trip ticket. A Lufthansa employee told Di Cicco that it was the most expensive bus ticket she had ever seen.

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

Even with powerful new solar observatories and spacecraft dedicated to observing the Sun, there is still science to be done during eclipses on the ground, such as observing the corona, which continued to excite Jay.

Pasachoff prided himself on almost never missing an eclipse and credited his luck with the weather for never being cloudy. He always managed to secure the best locations, and Mazatlán, Mexico looked most promising for 2024.

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

Even so, he wrote, “I have not given up on the idea of ​​going to the Antarctic eclipse on December 4, for which I have three lines of research.” He sent back haunting photos of the ghost sun over an icy horizon, his last excursion into darkness. Even so, he continued planning the next eclipses.

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

It will be lonely in the shadows on April 8th.

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