Delaware astronomer hopes solar eclipse inspires young people

A solar eclipse in the 70s inspired Judi Provencal to study the stars. Now, as the resident astronomer at Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory, she hopes to create future astronomers on Monday.

Mt. Cuba’s Greenville observatory is already completely booked for Monday’s historic solar eclipse. Visitors will be able to see the moon cover most of the sun using a telescope that was built in 1887, and donated to the observatory by the Du Pont family.

Provencal, who now teaches astronomy at the University of Delaware, said it was the sight of an eclipse when she was young that led to her life’s work.

“One of my first memories, when I was a kid, of astronomy was seeing an eclipse, and ever since then, that’s all I wanted to do,” Provencal said. “It would be nice to encourage people to think about astronomy.”

She said the astronomy field is changing rapidly and there’s a need for more astronomers. Because it will be viewed by so many people, Monday’s historic eclipse has a good chance of achieving that vision. “This one, in the age of the internet, and everybody has a camera nowadays, it’s going to be the most watched eclipse probably that’s ever happened.”

Provencal demonstrated how the special solar lens is used on one of Mt. Cuba’s telescopes.

“The first thing you’ve got to remember to do is put the solar filter on, otherwise, we’re going to fry people’s brains,” she said.

Mt. Cuba's historic telescope could inspire future astronomers during the solar eclipse. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)
Mt. Cuba's historic telescope could inspire future astronomers during the solar eclipse. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

It’s also important for viewers not using a telescope to use protective eyewear when viewing the eclipse.

“There’s a lot of photons coming off the sun, and you don’t want those going into your eye all at the same time, it’s like a little laser,” she said. “Even with 80 percent of the disk covered, it can still hurt you.”

Provencal hopes all those who see it will be inspired.

“One of the things I really like to do is have people come and look through the telescope, especially kids. They look through the telescope and see the moon for the first time and they go, ‘Oh wow,’ and that’s just fun, so I’m sure the same thing’s going to happen on eclipse day.”

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