A Close Encounter with an Eclipse Chaser Legend

“The modern Anthropology of understanding a natural eclipse must include the Treatise between the Sun and the Moon. We cannot have one without the other. Jay Pasachoff is one of America’s greatest minds of his generation and his treasure is understanding eclipses. His wife Naomi completes the Treatise in the life of Jay and the story of these two connections are the topic of our revelation today.”

AAA member Mark Dallmeyer is a Turnkey Project Coordinator and independent contractor who relates his chance meeting with Dr. Jay Pasachoff, who is the Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. He is a renowned expert on the solar corona and chromosphere and has been on many Solar Eclipse expeditions to study them. He has authored many textbooks and trade books including Peterson First Guide to Astronomy.

Dr. Jay Pasachoff has had a long career at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and he is also Chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Solar Eclipses. Asteroid 5100 Pasachoff was named by the IAU in his honor. He has also given lectures to our club, the last one being back in April 2019 at the Museum of Natural History in the Kaufman Theater.

Mark got a chance to sit down with Dr. Pasachoff to discuss their shared interest in geomagnetic storms. Mark and I go back many years, since the early days of North-South Lake AAA observing sessions in the Catskills.

“10 years ago, I had a question about solar eclipses and the potential effects of GMDs” explains Mark. “This theme [of Solar Eclipses and GMDs] was picked up by the R&D services for GMDs by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and furthermore specifically, the research founded upon by the EPRI (Energy Power Research Institute) founded by GE in Pittsfield, Massachusetts at the Lenox test facilities. Pittsfield is the nearest small city to Williamstown and its Ivy League College, which just happened to be the serendipity needed to meet Dr. Pasachoff.”

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. Image Credit: NASA

For those not in the know, a geomagnetic disturbance (GMD), also known as a geomagnetic storm, is a major event in Earth’s magnetosphere. It’s caused by a very efficient transfer of energy from solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth. During solar maximum, geomagnetic storms occur more often, with the majority driven by CMEs or Coronal Mass Ejections, which is a huge release of plasma discharged from the Sun’s surface.

Mark continued, “with my research in hand, and a fellow called John Anderson, the original lightning expert for the GE transformer division, we went to meet Jay Pasachoff for the first time.  On the drive-up John and I stopped for a short coffee where he proceeded to draw me a diagram on a napkin of a GMD sensor system that could potentially detect GMDs before they hit the Earth.”

“It is still a bit of a mystery of how the three of us connected but I know that our initial discussion with Jay and the crazy understanding effects of how an eclipse works, goes light years beyond anyone John and I had ever met before. 

Amazingly, however, Jay was even more appreciative of us for paying him a visit.  Now it was down to work. Jay asked, ‘How do we expect to demonstrate a GMD danger to the public and the potential disaster when one of these flares devastates our electrical grid as we know it?’ We all took in the silence and watched as the bubbles in our beers began to froth.”

I too, had an encounter with Dr. Pasachoff at a meeting in another New York City coffee shop a few weeks before the great transit of 2012, along with fellow AAA members Tony Hoffman and Shana Tribiano. I will always appreciate his warm greetings and his acceptance of wanting to meet us all.

Dr. Pasachoff, fondly recalls the 1950s as a AAA member, making a 6” f/8 parabolic mirror in the Optical Division in the basement of the planetarium, and being part of the Moonwatch team in 1957 atop the RCA building.

The following is taken from an online interview, as well as past discussion I have had with Dr. Pasachoff, “I had spent a lot of time at the Hayden Planetarium, and presumably my parents had taken me there as a young child. In high school, I went to the Bronx High School of Science and during that period, I made a six-inch f/8 reflector telescope mirror in the Optical Division of the Amateur Astronomers Association [of New York], which was located in the basement of the Hayden Planetarium, then headed by the famous Dick Luce. So, I used to go down on the subway to do that and walk around an oil barrel with my hands going back and forth to make this mirror. And then at the Bronx High School of Science in shop class, I made one year a mount with babbitted bearings, and I made a tripod out of wood; I made the whole thing.”

Photo By Tony:Hoffman, Eclipsed Sun above the Andes, taken with a Sony DSC-RX100 II from near Iglesia, Argentina, by Tony Hoffman

As an eclipse enthusiast myself, I have always been impressed with his eclipse chasing record, approaching 80 times within the shadow of the Moon.

My one big question to Dr. Pasachoff has always been … how do you do it? How are you consistently able to travel to these far-off places to view these Eclipses?  Dr. Pasachoff explained, “I have had a National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant from the Division for Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences for the 2019-2020 total solar eclipses, and the 2017 Great American Eclipse [expeditions] are both from the NSF and National Geographic. I have also recently submitted a renewal application for 2023 and 2024. The partial eclipses are at my own expense with some support from Williams College.”

Another question would be your role as Chair of the Working Group on Eclipses of the International Astronomical Union of the Sun and Heliosphere Division. What does that entail? “As Chair of the IAU Working Group, I keep in touch with people from around the world to try to aid them, and from time to time have written letters of support to try to help duty-free admission of equipment to various countries. I maintain (with technical help) the website at http://eclipses.info for the Working Group.”

Returning to Mark Dallmeyer and his conversations with Dr. Pasachoff, they discussed an amazing book, ‘The American Eclipse of 1878’ by author David Baron, which he also referred to me to read.

“Here we see how Thomas Edison worked with Joseph Norman Lockyer, founder of Nature Magazine in London, and Pierre Janssen in France, discoverer of Helium within the Fraunhofer lines at the same exact time of Lockyer’s discovery of Helium”, applauds Mark.   

“Shortly after Lockyer left for the American Eclipse of 1878, Edison found the miracle cure for the lightbulb and further the idea of the cinematic revolver.  Each of which has its discovery foundations in the hands of Warren DeLaRue, inventor of the lightbulb, and Janssen, designer of the first concept of an astronomic revolver that took pictures of Space events.” He excitedly concludes, “Can we now see the serendipity of meeting Jay at the Purple Pub in Williamstown?” 

Mark finishes with, “Jay, the 2012 recipient of the Janssen Medal, Society of Astronomy in France and further recipient of the Royal Astronomy Society, grew up in New York City, where he was the gifted child of immigrant parents, and continues to claim a heart for the Amateur Astronomers Association [of New York].”

I trust we will be hearing more of these and other anthropologic heroes who have attempted to solve the mysteries of Eclipses, as well as from Dr. Pasachoff.