The Sun, the Moon, and Software: Solar Eclipse 2017

In 1860, a total solar eclipse that crossed Spain was captured by a number of observers in the best way available to them—pen and ink impressions on paper. In the early 1970s, a researcher in Boulder, Colorado at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory looked back to see if the earlier sky-watchers had taken note of a phenomenon recently documented in photographs. After examining 46 hand-sketched renderings of the eclipse, Dr. Jack Eddy concluded that the 19th century viewers had seen a white-light coronal disturbance—a transient feature that NASA had only recently documented via Skylab photography. 

More than a century and a half after the 1860 eclipse, things have changed in big ways. Including in big data ways. On Monday, more than a thousand citizen scientists arrayed themselves in an arcing path across the span of the United States, photographed the eclipse, and quickly handed the shots over to Google’s Making and Science Lab. A powerful algorithm was waiting, described by Co.Design as a tool to “stitch the images together into a time-expanded video” of totality as it swept across the nation. The “Eclipse Megamovie” project provides researchers with a massive data set, the public with a unique look at a natural phenomenon not everyone has been able to see in person, and Google with a means of fine-tuning its machine learning work. 

I live in Boulder, 5 miles out from the High Altitude Observatory mentioned previously. With something as dramatic-sounding as the “path of totality” set to appear just a few hours’ drive north in Wyoming, and having read that an analysis of 10 years of cloud data concluded that Casper, Wyoming was likely to have some of the clearest skies, I definitely wasn’t staying home. A friend from out of state quickly came on board, bringing others with her, and “Eclipse 2017: Casper Mountain Edition” went into motion. I’m awfully glad it did. 


A view of the Sunburst Lodge’s pop-up campground on Casper Mountain, the evening before the eclipse.

In person, Monday’s eclipse was nothing short of awe-inducing—there was so much to take in, you hardly knew where to look or what sensation to focus on. As the light took on a strange blue-gray cast, the temperature dropped, first slowly, and then quickly enough to bring on shivers. “Twilight” and “dusk” were the first words that came to mind, but “gloaming”—one I’d never used before—felt more apt. It wasn’t all cold light, though. Spinning around to take in a 360-degree sunset was a new and wonderful experience. Things moved so quickly that when totality arrived I was several beats behind, unsure if it was really time or if I was just looking a few degrees in the wrong direction. An audio recording exists of me saying “Where?!?” repeatedly—followed by my friend’s exclamation of “Take off your glasses!” And there it was: A thin ring of white light leaping out of the dark. When the eclipse-timing app on a campmate’s phone instructed us to put our glasses back on, we could hardly believe two-odd minutes had passed so quickly. 

The social aspect of the morning was also memorable. There was a good deal of sharing among strangers—everything from advice, to time with a powerful telescope, to cupcakes, to emotion. Minutes before totality arrived, a friendly group of field-mates were showing us elements of their setup, from an array of fancy lenses to a white sheet paired with a crescent shadow-throwing colander. Moments after it ceased, I turned around and one of them, a man in his 70s or 80s, was crying, his face in his hands. He’d tried to see a total eclipse once before but clouds had obscured it. This time, he’d traveled from British Columbia, lured by the data on Casper’s skies. His emotion was clearly a bit overwhelming, but not so much so that he didn’t immediately accept our offer to share a little celebratory champagne. We didn’t have a cup for him, but he took the bottle and tipped it right up. Still wiping away tears, but with a broad smile on his face.

 

A new friend’s colander, throwing shadows of the eclipse.

In addition to the raw, beautiful spectacle of it and the fleeting-but-meaningful moments of human connection, the eclipse was interesting in another way. It represented the intersection of nature and number-crunching, of big beauty and big data. With the eclipse likely seen, discussed, searched for, and documented by a larger number of people in this country than any other eclipse in history, it presented opportunities for research on many, many fronts. Innumerable data points from weather balloons, planes, electrical grids, and average people on mountaintops and in office parks will be run through any number of programs and contribute to our understanding of our surroundings in ways we don’t yet realize. And in ways I realized in up-close, taillight-lit fashion while sitting in homebound traffic. Let’s just say that several navigation apps were put through their paces, and that I’ve never examined route congestion highlighting with the fervent intensity I did Monday as we cut back and forth across Wyoming on unfamiliar roads, with network coverage coming in only brief fits and starts. It was a long drive, but it was nice to think that data gleaned from Monday’s mass migrations will likely prove to be a treasure trove of insight into how drivers make decisions and move when they’re excited, tired, and really, really hoping not to run out of gas.  

In the days leading up to the eclipse and as the visible corona slipped away, I couldn't help but take stock of some of the people and things that helped my experience unfold the way it did. The scientists who gathered and made sense of massive quantities of astronomical and weather data. The reporters who disseminated the highlights and motivated so many people to get out and see the eclipse. The individuals who took it upon themselves to create useful things, from interactive maps of the path of totality to visualizations of all the Waffle House and Bojangles restaurants that conveniently fell within it. And the engineers and developers who built the devices, platforms, and applications that helped make all that possible.

The development of systems and programs that can rapidly analyze vast stores of data has changed science in truly amazing ways. On a more personal level, the work of untold numbers of software programmers also enabled the dozens, maybe hundreds, of digital interactions that added up to me standing on a mountain next to one of my best friends in a kind of darkness I’d never experienced before. That we were out in nature together, with our eyes turned skyward and our phones on the ground, is thanks in large part to technology, and to the creativity of those who invent it and create with it. In a blur of drop-down menus, smoothly zooming maps, and search text boxes, a camping spot was found (at the “Sunburst Lodge,” of all places), a flight was booked, our optimal highway route was sketched, and bear-deterring air horns were purchased. There may be moments when the world within my phone makes me a little less present in the physical edition, but this wasn’t one of them. This time, the technology in the palm of my hand was truly in the service of lived experience. Unforgettable, social, fleeting experience. 

A much longer experience—being a part of Syncfusion—has no doubt magnified my appreciation of the difference well-executed technology can make. I've been with the company a good while now, close to 14 years. One of the many privileges of that has been continually getting glimpses of what's on the horizon earlier than I, as a non-developer, would have otherwise. 

Every week, we gather as a company to learn what each department is up to, get feedback on what our clients think we're doing that’s spot-on and where they think we can improve or add value, and hear what our development team is working on. Looking back at a now-distant meeting where our leadership talked about widening Syncfusion's focus from the desktop to a broad array of screens, I remember feeling a smidge skeptical that the distinctly un-smart phone in my bag would really morph into something that I used as much more than a basic communication device and alarm clock. Given that I checked social media for an advance look at the skies on Casper Mountain, that I recorded and uploaded temperature and cloud data to researchers via the GLOBE Observer app, and that I’m currently tapping out a draft of this very post on a mobile phone, suffice it to say that I long ago realized the “many screens” roadmap was a solid one. And that when Syncfusion's big data efforts got underway about 5 years back I was immediately eager to hear more about the plans and what they'd mean for our customers and their stores of data. With each expansion of Syncfusion's vision, my own has broadened in turn. 

The eclipse was a sensory and social experience unlike any I’ve had before. It was also a lovely reminder that databases and the applications that pull from them aren't cold, lifeless things—the bits filling them are glints and shadows of the physical world. Interpreted and turned loose in new formats, they're capable of helping us plan, getting us safely and efficiently from Point A to Point B, making us smile, and gathering masses of strangers together to witness something beautiful. Standing in a meadow together, we weren’t looking at search engines or apps. But I sure appreciate the ones that that brought us all there. Here’s to technology, and here’s to all of you creators who put it to work. I can’t wait to see how we prepare for, experience, and understand the eclipses still to come. 2024 can’t arrive soon enough. 


In the midst of all the high tech (drones, solar telescopes, and eclipse apps galore), there was plenty of low tech. Here, a camper paints at an easel. Some recording methods never go out of style, and rightfully so.


But Wait, There’s More!

  • If you missed the total eclipse this round, you can always start planning to see one of the next 15 happening around the globe!
  • In the meantime, you can retroactively experience eclipse soundscapes. Keep your fingers crossed for recordings of nature reacting strangely to the event. 
  • Put the universe in your pocket or on your desktop with the NASA Space Weather Media Viewer.
  • Intrigued by the idea of becoming a citizen scientist and getting data about your surroundings into the hands of researchers? Learn about the GLOBE Observer program and download the app!
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