On August 21 a total solar eclipse passed over the width of the continental United States for the first time since 1918, and many of us were transfixed by the epic celestial event. Alumni Lawn, among other sites across campus, afforded spectacular views of the eclipse for students, faculty, and staff. Quite a stellar welcome to a new academic year at Vanderbilt, arriving two days before the beginning of classes.
In celebration of the ineffable natural beauty of such an experience, “The Shadow of the Sun: E. E. Barnard and the Solar Eclipse,” an exhibit curated by four astronomy students on the work of American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923), will remain on view in the gallery of the Central Library through September 10. Best known for his discovery of Amalthea, the fifth moon of Jupiter, Barnard was a photographer and astronomer who spent a lifetime observing and photographing the night sky. The exhibition draws on collections housed in the Libraries and Special Collections, as well as loans from private collectors.
Astronomical research faces a challenge in that very little of what is studied can be controlled in a laboratory environment, and astronomers are usually limited by what they are able to see from Earth. Because solar eclipses are only visible in certain parts of the world, a great deal of the understanding of the Sun that has been gained from solar eclipses has relied on astronomers like E. E. Barnard, who traveled around the world in order to photograph eclipses. The images that Barnard captured were widely described and reproduced in academic journals to help the astronomical community learn more about our nearest star.