Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

A solar eclipse to spark imaginations


Science is meant to be exciting. If it is dull (as is often taught in schools in the Arab world) then it loses its most important effect: to inspire others.

Now solar and lunar eclipses may not seem like rocket science, but they do fit the bill of events that inspire a mainstream audience, and they also offer great opportunities for scientific research. For instance, Einstein’s theory of general relativity was only confirmed during the 1919 total solar eclipse, when scientists observed light from distant stars bending when passing near the Sun due to its immense gravity.

With that in mind, the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, prepared a science outreach event around a partial solar eclipse that happened on Tuesday, 4th January 2011, and was best viewed from North Africa. At its peak, the moon hid nearly 55% of the sun disk.

Alaa Ismail, assistant professor of space astrophysics at the AUC organized an event to observe the eclipse, inviting people of all ages to come and watch it through eclipse glasses. The organizers also set up a state-of-the-art solar telescope, which was used to observe the Sun’s activities, including solar flares and prominences.

The event also included a public lecture from Ismail about space and eclipses, as well as fun events and competitions.

Many people turned up for the event, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a large turn up of students from different schools. It is heartening to see young people still interested in science and science events in Egypt. A laid back, fun atmosphere left the children more interested in science than when they came. And you can’t go wrong with that!

Such activities can serve to balance the boring, redundant way that science is taught in schools, maybe even reverse a new trend in Egypt where more students are opting to study non-science majors in high schools and universities. Now we just need more of them – continuously.

This is not Ismail’s first science outreach project. Throughout the second half of 2010, he held several events to explain to the public how Jupiter was at its closest to Earth during that period. During these meetings, he set up telescopes to give people, usually for the first time in their lives, a chance to observe the vast skies through a telescope lens.

Below are some photos of the event, provided by Science and Society:


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