TWO MINUTES AND THREE SECONDS. That’s how long Shadia would get to study what people were calling the Great American Eclipse.
On August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the sun would cut across the United States from coast to coast for the first time in ninety-nine years. Every eclipse is remarkable, but what would make this one special was how many people would be able to see it. Even though total eclipses occur fairly often—about seventy-five times each century—much of the time, the moon’s shadow passes over remote or unpopulated areas where no one is around to see it. An eclipse might pass over a desert, or across the open ocean. But this one would cross thirteen states, from Oregon to South Carolina. Some twelve million people lived directly in its path. Half of the country was within a day’s drive. “For so many people to be so close to the path of totality is very rare,” Shadia says. It was possible more people would see this eclipse than any other in history.
For six years, Shadia had been helping the country get ready. She and other scientists and educators met with local governments, police and fire departments, state and national parks, private companies, and schools. They wanted people to be excited about the eclipse, but also prepared. They knew that millions of people would travel to see it. Many of them would want to be in rural areas and small towns. If these communities didn’t plan ahead, they might be overwhelmed by tourists. They would need to find space for extra campgrounds, plan for traffic jams, and rent lots of portable toilets!
Shadia also talked to people about how to watch the eclipse. She wanted people to know how to protect their eyes and enjoy the eclipse safely, but she also wanted them to really see it. The partial phase of an eclipse can hurt your eyes if you look at it directly, but it’s safe to look at the sun during totality—in fact, that’s the only way to see it. “My concern is that people won’t remove their glasses during totality,” Shadia says. “I tell them, if you can’t see anything anymore through the glasses, then you should remove the glasses and look at the corona.”
Shadia was eager for people to see the corona; she thinks it’s one of the most beautiful and amazing sights in nature. She also hoped that watching the eclipse would get more people interested in science. An eclipse is a chance for people to observe the actual movement of the solar system, and to think about the forces that cause that movement, like gravity.
An eclipse is also a chance for people to see the sun in a new way, and learn about how it works and how it affects our planet. Many people may not even realize that stars have an atmosphere, but during an eclipse they can see the sun’s atmosphere with their own eyes. What is that atmosphere made of? What gives it its shape and structure? What happens to that atmosphere as it streams out into space? As a scientist, Shadia felt a responsibility to share what she had learned with other people. As she traveled around the country, she gave talks at schools and universities about her work and spoke to many journalists about the upcoming eclipse.
Shadia had loved science since she was a girl. The oldest of four sisters, she was born in Damascus, Syria. Syria has been devastated by a civil war that began in 2011. But when Shadia was growing up, it was a peaceful, progressive country, where education was valued. Her parents, both teachers, sent her to a missionary school, where she learned French and English, in addition to the Arabic she spoke at home.
It was her science teacher, Sister Bernard-Dominique, who introduced her to physics. Shadia liked how Sister Bernard-Dominique would come up with amusing stories and problems to solve, like asking her to calculate how much someone would weigh on the moon. For Shadia, it was like a light had turned on inside of her. A force like gravity did more than make your pencil fall off your desk. It moved planets, stars, and whole galaxies. By understanding the rules of physics, Shadia realized, you could understand how the whole universe worked.
Shadia’s hero was Marie Curie, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity through her experiments. “I found her life story fascinating,” Shadia says. “She had the drive and the smarts and the imagination to carry out her experiments and make all these discoveries, and she also had to fight prejudices.”
Her parents thought she might become a doctor, but Shadia had other plans. She wanted to become a physicist. She graduated from the University of Damascus, went on to study at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and then came to the United States to get her PhD in physics.
Now Shadia hoped this eclipse might inspire a new generation of physicists and astronomers. But she couldn’t spend all her time talking about it. She had her own expedition to plan. And because this eclipse was so close to home, she wanted to put together a big team and bring as many telescopes, cameras, and observing instruments as she could. In the end, she was able to get more than twenty-five scientists and engineers from a dozen universities, observatories, private companies, and other institutions to help her make her observations. She spread them out at several different sites dotted along a one-thousand-mile (1,600 km) stretch of the eclipse’s path.
Spreading out her team would increase the likelihood that at least some of her sites would have good weather. It would also mean that she could observe the corona over time. “You can follow dynamic changes in the corona when you’re spread out,” Shadia says. “At each site it’s only two minutes and a few seconds, but if you put the pictures together from five or six sites, you can say, ‘Look, the features changed from this to this to this.’”
Shadia began researching locations, contacting local chambers of commerce and community groups for help and advice. A year before the eclipse, she flew to meet Judd Johnson, an engineer in Boulder, Colorado, one of her closest and longest collaborators, for a scouting trip. Together they drove west from Nebraska, stopping to check out sites along the way. They were looking for places far away from city lights, with a dry climate and a clear view of the sky. The sites also had to be able to accommodate her team with housing, water, and electricity.
In the end, they found five sites that seemed perfect: Mitchell, Oregon; Mackay, Idaho; Whiskey Mountain and Guernsey State Park in Wyoming; and Alliance, Nebraska. Shadia started making the arrangements, but she kept her plans private—she didn’t want any competing eclipse teams showing up at her designated spot.
Organizing such a big expedition was stressful. Besides planning her own scientific research and applying for funding, Shadia had to think about things like providing food, transportation, and housing for all those people. She had to assign groups, pick team leaders, and make sure everybody could work well together and get along.