April 12, 2024

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

A total solar eclipse, when the cosmos clicks into place and the worlds align like playthings, can be one of the most visceral experiences you can have without ingesting anything illegal.

Some people scream, some cry. Eight times I have experienced this cycle of light, darkness, death and rebirth, feeling the light melt and seeing the corona of the sun spread its pale, feathery wings across the sky. And it never gets old. As you read this article, I’m getting ready to head to Dallas with family and old friends to see my ninth solar eclipse.

One old friend won’t be there: Jay M. Pasachoff, the longtime astronomy professor at Williams College. I stood 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 the coast of Turkey.

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

“We are umbraphiles,” wrote Dr. Pasachoff in The New York Times in 2010. “Having once stood in the umbra, the moon’s shadow, during a solar eclipse, we are driven to do so again and again, every time the moon passes between the Earth and the sun.”

When a solar eclipse occurred, Jay wore his lucky orange pants and led expeditions of colleagues, students (many of whom became professional astronomers and eclipse hunters themselves), tourists, and friends to corners of every continent. Many who took part in his outings were introduced to the adrenaline-filled pursuit of a few minutes or seconds of magic while hoping it didn’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 introduce them to the scientific enterprise.

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

His death ended a remarkable series of successes in the pursuit of darkness. He saw 75 eclipses, of which 36 were total. According to the Eclipse Chaser Log, Dr. Pasachoff spent a total of more than an hour, 28 minutes and 36 seconds (he was a stickler for details) 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, Colo.

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

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

Dr. Pasachoff was a 16-year-old freshman at Harvard in 1959 when he saw his first solar eclipse, off the coast of New England in a DC-3 chartered by his mentor, Harvard professor Donald Menzel. He was addicted.

After a Ph.D. Dr. A Harvard graduate, Pasachoff eventually attended 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 started out cloudy. Dr. Pasachoff, who met his old mentor, Dr. Menzel, channeled, hired a pilot and a small plane. He sent his young student to the airport with a nice Nikon camera and told him to photograph the solar eclipse while hanging out of an open airplane door.

“I had an unobstructed view of the eclipse. And you know, here I was, the only person from Williams who got to see the eclipse,” Dr. Stinebring himself.

A year later, in 1973, young Mr. Stinebring found himself on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, along with Dr. Pasachoff and teams from fourteen other universities, waiting for the longest solar eclipse of the century, some seven minutes in total . The moment was life-changing, he said.

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

Dr. Pasachoff, his former students said, went out of his way to inform locals not to fear the eclipse and to view it safely.

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

“Jay always had a Plan B,” says Dennis di Cicco, a longtime editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.

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

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

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

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

Even with powerful new solar observatories and special spacecraft looking at the sun, there is still science to be done during ground-based eclipses, such as observing the corona, which continued to animate Jay.

Dr. Pasachoff boasted that he almost never missed an eclipse, and he attributed the luck to the weather because it had never been cloudy. He always managed to secure the best locations, and Mazatlán in Mexico seemed the most promising for 2024.

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

Still, he wrote, “I have not yet given up the idea of ​​going to the December 4 Antarctic eclipse, for which I have three lines of inquiry.” Indeed, he was going to send back eerie photos of the ghost sun over an icy horizon, his last foray into the darkness. Still, he continued to plan for the next eclipses.

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

It will be lonely in the shade on April 8.

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