Eclipse No. 66 for Williams College's Jay Pasachoff, who took in celestial event from Oregon

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SALEM, Ore. — The conditions couldn't have been better.

Under a nearly cloudless sky, with temperatures in the 80s, Williams College astronomer and professor Jay Pasachoff rallied his guests and student expedition team during a two-minute countdown from a second-story terrace atop Willamette University's Ford Hall.

"Ha! We're going to see an eclipse!"

The team took to their stations and waited. The day took on an unearthly tone, going from a sepia to a more smokey gray tint as the air temperature dropped.

Then, all that excited energy paused.

The sky went dark and time seemed to stop.

Audible gasps and cheers erupted as the sun's brilliant corona — part of its outermost atmosphere — beamed out from behind the shadow of the moon in a glorious display of wisps and streams of light.

Stars and specks of planets appeared and other silhouettes appeared with exceptional sharpness.

Out on the terrace exclaims began about other visible effects and astronomical phenomena. A whir of clicking telescope cameras provided a rhythmic soundtrack to the thousands of data points simultaneously being recorded.

Two minutes, then the sun broke free, reclaiming its rightful place in the midmorning sky.

As it did, it illuminated the expressions of gobsmacked scientists and guest spectators, old and young. They hugged, mouths smiling widely.

Others wiped tears from the corners of their eyes, or wept openly.

There were high-fives and fists and arms pumping in the air in an expression of "Yes! We did it."

Pasachoff, logging his 66th eclipse, stood for a moment in an improvised receiving line of embraces, pats on the back and handshakes.

"Everything went incredibly well," Pasachoff said. "It could not have been better."

Adding to the excitement was the presence of a film crew from Boston's WGBH, which was producing a special segment, "Eclipse Over America," for the popular "NOVA" television science series on PBS. The show was to debut at 9 p.m. Monday.

Massachusetts was well-represented on the observation terrace, with astronomers from MIT, and Williams College alumni, including Pittsfield native Duane Lee.

"It's amazing," he said. "I think Williams College is extremely lucky to have Jay Pasachoff. They picked a perfect professor of a small college that can do impactful science."

MIT's Michael Person and his wife, Jennifer Catelli, were also there to witness and aid the expedition. Person and Williams student Ross Yu, a rising junior, manned a special telescope system that filtered the sun's spectra and produced data about magnetic fields' potential effects on the sun's corona and temperatures.

"This was unreal," said Yu, who wore celestial-themed socks, purchased at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, to mark the occasion. "It's amazing. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this."

Catelli, a high school physics teacher at Rising Tide Charter Public School in Plymouth, said she couldn't be more excited to go back to school this fall, to teach an elective on astronomy and share her experience with her students.

"My first job as a teacher is to get them excited about learning, and this is exciting," she said.

She also felt hopeful about the lasting impact of such an event making millions of people ponder what happens in the sky.

"I want journalists, politicians and change makers to understand more about science," Catelli said. "We as society benefit from having more people who are scientifically literate."

In general, this opens the door for more mutual understanding of one another, through the appreciation of the experience.

The Levine family will share this experience for the rest of their lives.

Judy and Sydney Levine, whose Stockbridge home still holds the first telescope built by their son, astronomer Stephen Levine, booked this trip last year to be with family, including Stephen's wife and fellow astronomer, Amanda Bosh, their son, Max and Stephen's brother Barry. It was the first total eclipse seen by them all.

On the ground, the couple watched the eclipse alongside newfound Canadian friends, Paul and Carol Steinberg, and couple Janis Geshman and Bryon Czarnik, all of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Toronto Center.

This was the second eclipse for the Steinbergs; Geshman and Czarnik were on their third.

"Once you've seen one eclipse, you kind of get bitten by the bug," Geshman said. "I'm not really an astronomer, but this really gives you a sense of being a part of the universe."

Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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