UMass Sunwheel eclipse party draws large crowd

  • Monday’s partial eclipse of the sun is seen from Southampton. COURTESY NED POLAN

  • The total eclipse of the sun, with a “diamond ring” effect, is shown Monday, near Redmond, Ore. AP PHOTO

  • John Lloyd, center, of Amherst, and about a thousand other people gathered at the University of Massachusetts Sunwheel for an eclipse viewing hosted by the UMass astronomy department Monday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The partially eclipsed sun is shown in this photo taken in Holyoke, Monday, by Adam McClellan. COURTESY ADAM McCLELLAN

  • Tom Whitney, 76, of the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association, adjusts his spotting scope to offer views of the solar eclipse to a long line of people gathered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Sunwheel, Monday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • David Walker of Chicopee watches the eclipse through special shades during a viewing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Sunwheel hosted by the UMass Astronomy Department on Monday afternoon, August 21, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Diane Norman was one of about a thousand people to gather at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Sunwheel for an eclipse viewing hosted by the UMass Astronomy Department on Monday afternoon, August 21, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Zack Korpiewski of Whately uses a welder's helmet to watch the solar eclipse during a viewing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Sunwheel hosted by the UMass Astronomy Department on Monday afternoon, August 21, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • After about a 90-minute wait, Leah Kalman, 9, of Amherst appreciated a view of the solar eclipse through a spotting scope during a viewing hosted by the University of Massachusetts Astronomy Department at the UMass Sunwheel on Monday afternoon, August 21, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Geoff Friedman, who teaches math at Amherst Regional High School, borrows a specially adapted cereal box to glimpse a pinhole image of the solar eclipse during a viewing hosted by the University of Massachusetts Astronomy Department at the UMass Sunwheel on Monday afternoon, August 21, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts graduate students Ishita Dasgupta, foreground left, Arnab Majee and Adithya Kommini, right, use their cell phone cameras to capture the solar eclipse during a viewing hosted by the UMass Astronomy Department at the Sunwheel near McGuirk Stadium on Monday afternoon, August 21, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 8/21/2017 10:15:30 PM

AMHERST — Crowds of Americans and tourists across the country lifted their eyes from their work, their smartphones and the week’s sensational headlines Monday afternoon to collectively stare at the cosmos as the moon passed in front of the sun.

It likely comes as no surprise to hear that the country experienced a total eclipse on Monday, the country’s first since Hawaii saw a cloudy eclipse day in 1991, and the first in the contiguous United States since 1979. All the way back in 1257 was the last time a total eclipse took place exclusively over the landmass now considered the United States.

In the Pioneer Valley, the moon covered around 65 percent of the sun on Monday, according to NASA, but that didn’t stop onlookers from pouring out of their houses and workplaces to take a peek — mostly with protective glasses or homemade pinhole cameras. The shadow of the full eclipse extended from the Oregon coast all the way across to South Carolina, a path that drew thousands of tourists from across the country and world.

At the University of Massachusetts Sunwheel, an outdoor solar calendar and observatory, the astronomy department hosted a viewing party for the rare astronomical event. There, hundreds of onlookers, young and old alike, shared their mutual wonder, occasional disappointment, blankets, umbrellas, spots on the grass, eclipse glasses, pinhole cameras and pasta salad.

“Really, what I like now is this communal spirit,” Ann Ferguson, of Leverett, said as the sun and moon occasionally peeked out from behind the clouds.

“It feels special because so many people are here,” UMass microbiology professor Wilmore Webley said. The viewing party provided him a nice break from the hard work of moving into a new lab. The only thing that could have made the day better, he said, is if his son had been there to watch with him.

Plenty of children of all ages were present for the viewing, however, excited by the prospect of getting to look at the celestial wonder.

“We made viewers this morning so we could watch the eclipse,” Heather Yacek of Belchertown said, standing next to her two children, 4-year-old Aiden and 6-year-old Brady. The Yaceks’ pinhole cameras were made from cereal boxes, one of a handful of creative solutions to the danger of staring directly at the sun.

Attendees used special glasses, shoe boxes, bigger boxes with binoculars attached, cardboard tubing and welding masks to observe the eclipse, though some occasionally and ill-advisedly snuck bare-eyed glances at the sky.

“I used my phone,” UMass grad student Ishita Dasgupta said, showing off some of the relatively impressive photos she managed to get on her smartphone.

Hundreds also lined up around the open field to take a peek into telescopes set up by Daniela Calzetti, a UMass astronomy professor, and astronomer Tom Whitney of the Amherst Astronomy Association.

“I don’t know if I’m passionate about this,” Whitney said pointing at the sky. Gesturing at the crowd around him, he said, “I’m passionate about that.”

Standing near Whitney was 16-year-old Julio Rodriguez, who was at the viewing party as part of a group from the Redemption Christian Academy in Northfield.

“I’ve never seen what I’m about to see now!” he said in Spanish.

Gabriel Santucci, 8, was at the Sunwheel with family, spread out on a blanket away from the crowd, with plenty of moon pies to go around.

“I have these eclipse glasses,” he said excitedly, lending them to this unprepared journalist to view the orange, partially obscured sun against the pitch-black background visible with the glasses on. “I think it’s cool!”

Humankind has long projected its spiritual, philosophical, social, scientific and political beliefs onto such once-in-a-lifetime events. When pressed on the larger significance of Monday’s eclipse, many shared humorous anecdotes as well as deeper messages.

“I hope the moon’s feminine power will be moving some of the more noxious masculine power in the White House out,” joked Belchertown writer Dusty Miller, though she didn’t really believe it would.

For others like Calzetti, the UMass astronomy professor, the eclipse was a reminder of humans’ significance, or lack thereof. She said it evokes the feeling that we’re “little puny things on a crumb in the universe.”

“And yet we get to witness this,” Calzetti said with a smile on her face. She hopes the awe-inspiring event will draw more of the young people at the event into careers in science, technology, engineering or math.

Jane Mildred of Amherst said she also felt that sense of awe at getting to witness the astronomical event.

“It’s a reminder that we live on a planet, and the laws of the universe affect our lives,” she said. “And we can’t pretend like we’re in charge.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.




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