Arts and Culture Education

Retired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak knows so much about eclipses that he’s earned the nickname, “Mr. Eclipse.” Espenak will deliver the Bullitt Lecture in Astronomy at the University of Louisville this week.

I spoke with him about the lecture and the rarity of next year’s eclipse. You can listen to our conversation in the audio player above.

On how rare next year’s total eclipse is for the United States:

“The last total eclipse that passed through the lower 48 states was way back in 1979 and that particular eclipse only passed through the Pacific Northwest. The last time we had an eclipse that passed through the entire country from coast to coast you have to go back 100 years to 1918.”

On why Louisville is well-situated for viewing the 2017 eclipse:

“The most important thing of the eclipse is the very brief, brief period when the sun is completely covered by the moon. And that’s referred to as totality. It only last, typically, a few minutes, and in the case of 2017 it lasts about two minutes and forty seconds. And Louisville happens to be fairly close to that point. Now Louisville is outside the actual path of totality, so you can’t see totality from Louisville. That’s important for your listeners to know — that they’ve got to travel down to the eclipse path which travels through southern Illinois and into Kentucky. And it’s not very far from Louisville, it’s a very short drive.”

On how he fell in love with eclipses:

“I was an amateur astronomer as a boy and I knew about a total eclipse that was passing through the U.S. back in 1970, and I sort of had it on my radar for a couple of years. It was shortly after I got my driver’s license that the eclipse took place, within a year, and I convinced my parents to let me take the family car and drive 600 miles to get into that eclipse path. And I thought this was one of these once in a lifetime chances to see total eclipse. But after I saw the eclipse — it only lasted about just under three minutes — but the eclipse itself was so spectacular, so beautiful that I knew I couldn’t let it be a once in a lifetime event. I needed to see another one. And that just led to another one and another one and another one.”

Retired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak will give the Bullitt Lecture in Astronomy on Thursday, October 13 at 6:30 p.m. in Comstock Hall (105 W Brandeis Avenue) at U of L. There’s more information here

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for WFPL News.