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When it all lines up: Meet IU Northwest’s ‘eclipse experts’

Upcoming eclipse provides professors opportunity to highlight their passions in astronomy, photography and art

Faculty Mar 19, 2024

A professor uses props to teach students. Dr. Jessica Warren (right), using props, demonstrated to her students the science behind solar eclipses.Indiana is bracing for the April 8 solar eclipse, during which a ribbon of daytime darkness — totality — will stretch across most of the state for nearly four minutes. On the IU Northwest campus, the moon will cover 95% of the sun, significantly dimming the skies.

While the last total eclipse in North America happened in August 2017, there won’t be another until August 2044. Three IU Northwest faculty members have been using this year’s rare celestial event as an opportunity to cultivate curiosity and excitement about the wonders of astronomy, physics and photography.

Jessica Warren, Lecturer in Physics & Astronomy

It was a family vacation at Acadia National Park that got Warren hooked on space at age 12. Standing on the beach in Maine, park rangers identified constellations and helped her begin to learn how to navigate the sky.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said.

As the only professor who teaches astronomy at IU Northwest, Warren’s classes are often students’ first college-level science class.

“Not only do I want to teach them astronomy, I want to teach them the importance of science in general: how it helps us learn about the world and how astronomy plays a role in our everyday lives, whether or not we realize it,” Warren said.

“From making their own sundial, to the role of the stars and GPS in navigation, I want to get across to students that even though they may come in thinking astronomy is all ‘out there,’ it’s actually something they can relate to.”

One of her passions is the reduction of light pollution, which can block views of the stars, especially in urban environments, like the Gary campus.

“I’m interested in making the night sky more accessible to more people,” Warren said.

While she will be traveling with her family to see the April eclipse in totality in south-central Indiana, some of her students have been taught to operate a telescope with a special filter and will be on hand to answer eclipse questions during Rufus’ Solar Celebration, the on-campus eclipse viewing party.

“I just hope people get excited about the eclipse and get to experience it, even if they can only step outside of their office or home for a few minutes—it’s really not to be missed.”

Peter Costas, Visiting Lecturer in Photography & Digital Arts

Costas’ interest in astronomy revolves around the Sun, our planet’s home star, which provides the paintbrush every photographer needs: light.

He works with an alternative process — cyanotypes — which produces blueprints. Some may remember trying out the simple process as children by arranging plants or objects on chemically treated paper before exposing them to UV light or looking at old building blueprints.

“I’ve experimented with using vintage pinhole cameras and a lot of different variations of sunlight,” Costas explains. “How light changes if it’s cloudy or raining, depending on where the Sun is in the sky, or what time of year it is. I’m really interested in this sort of atmospheric part of photography.”

Costas’ fondness for the Sun might be considered hard-won. Before he entered the fine arts world, he served on submarines as a sonar technician for the U.S. Navy for five years, often spending months at a time at sea.

In 2023, he reflected on that period of his life, which involved a lot of secrecy and very little fresh food, in his art exhibit called “Expired Memories.” In it, the cyanotypes were printed on various food items — but mostly sliced Swiss cheese.

When thinking toward the upcoming solar eclipse Costas said, “I’m really curious to see what happens during the eclipse and how the event can change or possibly bring a new element of discovery to the medium, since it’s totally dependent on the Sun.”

Eclipses change the light of the sky and can also cast interesting crescent-shaped shadows under trees because “the tiny pores of the leaves act like pinhole cameras — you basically have thousands of pinhole cameras at one time.”

During the on-campus celebration, Costas will set up several stations with different approaches to “catch the light” and educate participants about how the cyanotype process works.

Jon Aros, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry

A view of the phases of a solar eclipse. A view of a solar eclipse taken by adjunct Professor of Chemistry, Jon Aros.

When Aros was 10 years old, a relative bought him a telescope. He was wowed when he saw the rings of Saturn for the first time. Before entering high school, he took his first astrophotograph of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet. Throughout his life, he’s made time to travel around the world — often informed by celestial events.

Before the 2017 eclipse, Aros watched the weather forecast for weeks, angling for the location in the path of totality with the clearest skies. The possibility of cloudiness led him to give up on southern Illinois and make a 25-hour drive to Casper, Wyoming.

He recently presented many of the images he captured on that trip at a public talk at IU Northwest.

“During my presentation, I talked about the fact that when you know science, you can create art,” he said.

A man stares into a camera looking up in the sky. Adjunct Professor of Chemistry, Jon Aros, in the field taking photos of a solar eclipse. The family member that gifted Aros his first telescope passed away from pancreatic cancer. Aros was later given a book titled The Last Lecture by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch. Pausch appeared on a special episode of “Oprah” and was dying of pancreatic cancer.

From Pausch’s story, Aros felt inspired to give his own motivating lectures but decided he would prefer to make it a small part of every class he taught, rather than waiting for the end of his career. In it, he shows astroimages he has taken on his travels, from the solstice at Stonehenge in England to the solstice of the equally astronomically informed “Woodhenge” at Cahokia Mounds in East St. Louis to the Milky Way in the dark night skies of several Western U.S. national parks.

“I decided that I would take about 45 minutes to an hour at the end of the semester for every class I teach,” he said. “Over the last 20 years I’ve run into students in the grocery store and other places who will say ‘I still remember that presentation on astronomy.’”

One pair of students even told him they planned a summertime trip, modeled on Aros’ “astronomical places of interest.”

In the coming weeks, Aros will be monitoring the projected April 8 weather across the path of totality in cities stretching from Buffalo, New York to Fredericksburg, Texas. He’s looking for the place with the clearest skies up to 24 hours before the big event, to set up the tracking mount he uses for his cameras. If the skies and other conditions cooperate, he’ll return with thousands of images to share.

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