By BILL ZECHMAN
Special to the Standard
Delete - Merge UpFor the first time in their lives, hundreds of Warren County students recently got to look directly into the sun, the source of light, warmth and life itself on Earth.
We are warned from our earliest childhood never to turn our unshielded eyes toward that giant fusion furnace in the sky, lest we destroy our sight by absorbing too much light energy in the one most delicate parts of our body, the retina at the back of the eye. A visiting astrophysicist from Vanderbilt University recently made it possible for local students to view the sun in complete safety.
“Look closely for those spindly filaments swirling up from the edge of the disc,” Dr. Billy Teets told students peering through his portable telescope outfitted with a $12,000 precision solar filter. “Those prominences are several times bigger than the Earth,” he explained.
Students were able to see not only the constant solar flares, but occasional sunspots as well.
“I’ve heard there will be a super huge solar flare that will reach out and engulf the Earth. That so?” one Warren County High School student worried. “There’s no evidence for that, so I’d say it’s not likely to happen,” Teets answered reassuringly.
Teets, who is outreach astronomer for VU’s Dyer Observatory, was in McMinnville last month as guest presenter at the Noon Rotary Club. In the hours before and after the civic club visit, the youthful scientist became something of a physics rock star at Warren County Middle School and WCHS.
“It was awesome! It was a big, red tennis ball with the fuzz coming off,” WCMS student Jordan McMillen, 11, reported after viewing the sun through Teets’ sophisticated telescope.
Other observations: “It was a huge gas ball.” – Selena Flores, 11. “It looks like a baseball without the seams.” – Wessley Rowland, 11. “I saw the gas flares coming off.” – Mikey King, 11. “The sun is a star that’s big and fat.” – Starr Smith, 11. “It was cool! It was bright and I never saw it like that.” – Jalen Haston,11.
WCMS physical science teacher Jeff Watson quoted one student as saying the visiting scientist and the experience of viewing the sun influenced him to pursue astronomy as an academic concentration and career. Watson coordinated Teets’ visit for some 200 students at WCMS, while physics instructor Becky Holcomb made the arrangements for the high school presentation, attended by an estimated 130.
History came full circle at Noon Rotary when Teets was introduced to McMinnville industrialist Jim Dyer, grandson of the late Arthur J Dyer. As owner of Nashville Bridge Company and a leading supporter of Vanderbilt University, the senior Dyer spearheaded the fundraising effort – he himself was the principal contributor – to realize the vision of VU astronomer Carl Seyfert to build and equip a major astronomical observatory. In 1953, the facility, with its 24-inch reflecting telescope, opened for research and educational outreach on a wooded hilltop in Brentwood.
Warren County school officials are studying opportunities and means for bringing local students to Dyer Observatory for a close-up look at celestial marvels.