Science

Astronomer and solar eclipse expert Jay Pasachoff has died at the age of 79.

Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer who traveled the world for over 50 years to witness 74 solar eclipses and was one of the world’s leading experts in sky observation, has died at the age of 79.

Pasachoff, Field Memorial professor of astronomy and director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College, died at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on Sunday (November 20). His wife Naomi Pasachoff cited lung cancer as the cause of death.

Pasachoff wrote about his passion for solar eclipses in a New York Times article. (will open in a new tab) in 2010: “We are umbraphiles. Once in the shadow, the shadow of the moon, during a solar eclipse, we have to do it again and again as the moon moves between the earth and the sun.”

Related: Chasing Solar Eclipses Q&A with Jay Pasachoff

With his doctoral dissertation in 1969 titled “The Fine Structure of the Solar Chromosphere,” Pasachoff was remarkably successful in identifying the best places to view eclipses. This included calculating where the clearest sky would be to observe the total phase of the eclipse. Familiarity with weather data also led Pasachoff to become known for his accurate weather forecasts.

Pasachoff was born July 1, 1943 in New York. The passion for astronomy began at an early age with trips to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. While attending the Bronx Science High School, Pasahoff began building telescopes.

After graduating in 1959 at the age of 16, Pasachoff entered Harvard University. There he took a course in astronomy taught by Donald Menzel, one of the first theoretical astronomers and astrophysicists in the United States, and an expert on solar eclipses.

Pasachoff observed his first solar eclipse on November 1, 1959. Writing in the New York Times in 2010, the astronomer detailed the event from his journal as follows: “Aboard an airplane flying over the coast of Massachusetts. the sun covered and the sky darkened to black, the solar corona outlined the moon in white. I got hooked.”

Pasahoff received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Harvard in 1963, 1965, and 1969, respectively. Pasachoff did postdoctoral research at the Harvard College Observatory in 1969, then took a post at Caltech before moving to Williams College in 1972.

He spent the next half century chasing eclipses around the world, and his passion never waned. “Every time it’s like going into Game 7 of the World Series tied in the ninth inning,” he told Fox News in 2016.

However, solar eclipses did not represent the fullness of Pasakhov’s work with the sun. The astronomer has studied the Sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, which only becomes fully visible during eclipses. (The corona is washed out by light from the layers below it, and can only be seen when the moon obscures the sun’s disk.)

The corona is much hotter than the surface of the Sun, for reasons scientists are still trying to figure out. Together with Steven Souza and Bryce Babcock, Pasachoff conducted experiments to study the temperature of the solar corona at millions of degrees and found what heats the solar atmosphere to such extreme temperatures.

Pasahoff also studied in great detail the passage of the innermost planets of the Solar System, Mercury and Venus, across the disk of the Sun. In July 2004, for example, Pasachoff and the Williams College team observed the first transit of Venus in 122 years, one of the rarest planetary alignments in the solar system. Pasachoff also witnessed the transit of Mercury across the Sun in 2006.

Related: Solar System Planets, Order and Formation: A Guide

However, perhaps Pasachoff’s greatest contribution to science was his public outreach efforts encouraging the general public to observe cosmic events regardless of their skill level.

In 2003, he received the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Educational Award for “eloquent and informative textbook writing from high school to college; for his dedication to teaching generations of students; for sharing with the world the joy of seeing eclipses.” ; for his many popular books and articles on astronomy; for his intense defense of science education in various forums; for his willingness to go into educational nooks no astronomer has gone before.”

In 2012, Pasachoff was awarded the Jules-Janssen Prize by the Astronomical Society of France for his research, teaching and popularization of astronomy.

In the same vein, Pasachoff was awarded the 2019 Klumpke-Roberts Prize of the Pacific Astronomical Society in 2017 for his contribution to the understanding and acceptance of astronomy by the public.

One of the Klumpke-Roberts award nominees wrote of Pasachoff’s activities in preparation for solar eclipses: “It is at these moments that Jay becomes the main cheerleader of astronomy, allowing more and more people to be interested in and engage in this field.”

In 2017 Q&A with Quanta (will open in a new tab)Pasahoff said: “I think that if we get millions or tens of millions of schoolchildren to watch the eclipse, it is so amazing to be out of the house during a total eclipse, and it is such a dazzling sight that perhaps they could be persuaded to pay more attention to the eclipse. their research.

“Who knows? In the long run, we can get more scientists out of this, more big discoveries.”

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