Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Failures in Science - Part 1: The Solar Eclipse

The wonderful thing about science is that you can often learn just as much, if not more, when mistakes are made than when everything goes according to plan. It is the errors that show us that something wasn't accounted for and those discoveries can be the really interesting things.

To discuss some of my scientific mishaps, I felt like a good way was to create a series of blogs. These are mostly from some of my more random adventures in scientific enlightenment but I feel they are fun.

Part 1 - The Solar Eclipses

On May 20th, 2012 there was a solar eclipse. It was toted as one of the best chances in my lifetime to view a solar eclipse. According to the map below I wasn't in the ideal of locations (in Salt Lake City) but I was in a good location to at least get a partial eclipse.

The problem was that we didn't have any equipment for viewing a solar eclipse. I didn't have the glasses (the store was all sold out) and we couldn't afford anything more specialized for the camera. We also happened to wait until the last minute so that didn't help matters either. This meant I had to make something or go without witnessing it.

I ended up trying to make a "Pinhole projector" but I didn't have the time or materials to do it properly. What I came up with was my "Aluminum foil board".

My homemade eclipse tools
I took a piece of cardboard, cut a square hole in it. Then covered the hole with aluminum foil. The aluminum foil was then pierced with a pin (later to be "adjusted"). A wooden board was also painted white for a projection surface.

Aluminum foil projection board

 We had a problem though. For the majority of the solar eclipse we had cloud cover. In an environment where we have little to no precipitation for the entire year (SLC gets ~15 in/yr), we ended up having cloud cover the one time I need it to be sunny. 

View of the "Solar Eclipse" through the clouds

  My wife though had the idea to head on down to the park anyway and see if we can see anything (we don't have a good view of the setting sun from our house but the park down the street has some amazing views). So we walk on down (~20 minute walk) at around 7pm. Peak time was around 7:30pm, with the eclipse ending at 8:30pm. The sun started to peek out around the clouds at 7:30. The problem was that the clouds still interfered with my system so I couldn't tell if it was working until the sun was fully out. When it finally came out I was able to project an image on the board by adjusting the distance between the projection surface and the pinhole. Unfortunately, though, the pinhole seemed to be too small for anything worthwhile to be visible on the projection. So taking a key I widened the hole into a now "no-longer pinhole" projection system. 

Zoom up of "pinhole"
This seemed to work rather well. You can see the result with the partial eclipse being projected onto the board in the picture below, which is even visible in the low res photo taken. Although the projections on the board ended up being very, very faint. In all of the examples of pinhole projection systems it seemed like the projection should be as clear as a strong shadow. Something must have been constructed wrong.

My wife pointing out the eclipse to my daughter.
One of the problems with this event, you will notice, is that there are very few pictures taken. The reasons for that:

No Photos Reason 1 - We forgot our DSLR camera at the house after we went for the walk to the park. There was not enough time to go back and get it before sunset/the end of the solar eclipse.

No Photos Reason 2 - My iPod Touch was our backup. It was not charged sufficiently and died immediately after the second photo. Pictures of the equipment were taken at a later date. The only photos taken at the eclipse was of the cloudy day and my wife and child looking at the board.

After the iPod died we were actually loaned disposable glasses from a family sitting near us so at least we were able to see the eclipse, if not document it.


So now we come to why this was a failure of science on my part.

1. I should have started prepping for this way ahead of time. Purchased glasses or something. A camera lens designed for an eclipse would have been awesome but probably cost prohibitive.

2. Cameras need to be brought and charged and backed up. Make sure you have them. It is hard to take pictures without cameras.

3. When making you own equipment. Follow the directions. This is the problem of the fuzzy projection. I believe if there was a tube involved to direct the projection it would have worked better. But I'm not 100% certain. Maybe next time.

4. Improvisation with the equipment most likely won't make things better. Although my pinhole started to work after I "fixed" it, it may have just been my imagination the whole time.


  1. See http://outsidetheinterzone.blogspot.com/2012/06/twice-in-lifetime.html for an excellent, and too-little publicized, viewing method, and http://outsidetheinterzone.blogspot.com/2008/08/august-21-2017.html for an upcoming opportunity in less than 5 years. Won't be at SLC, but not too far away...

  2. Thanks Lockwood! I had looked into this before the event but not owning a set of binoculars at the time meant I couldn't do it. I will keep it in mind for the next time though, which apparently is sooner than I thought.

  3. I made a 'viewing box'. Cut a peep home in one corner of a medium sized cardboard box, stuck a sheet of white paper on the other side, and made a pinhole opening with foil on the same side as the peep hole. Facing away from the sun you held up the box and looked in the peep hole, and you could clearly see the eclipse taking a bite out of the sun (I'm located about 2 hours north of you, in Idaho). Invited a couple of friends over to drink margueritas and look in a box, was a great afternoon.

    1. Nice job. I had seen the viewing box idea but thougt my method might be better. Maybe I will try that one out next time. I could try a hoard of ideas. Hmmm, plans coming together.


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