The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
Hundreds of local amateur astronomy fans looking to catch a clear glimpse of the full solar eclipse washed across the College of San Mateo campus, where enthusiasm for the rare event was palpable.
Educators, students, parents, youngsters and even a few pets convened early Monday, Aug. 21, in the courtyard outside the hilltop school’s planetarium to stare skyward in awe of the moon passing between Earth and the sun.
Glasses designed to safely view the event were distributed for free to visitors, while some queued in long lines to get a quick look through the five telescopes manned by experts from the school’s astronomy department to explain the phenomenon.
Mohsen Janatpour, a science and math professor as well as coordinator of the astronomy program, gleefully observed the expansive crowd gathered to share his passion for alignment of the planets.
“I live for this,” he exclaimed. “This is what I’ve been living for for the last 40 years. My personal aim is to bring science awareness to my community and astronomy is the best use for that . … I love it.”
Janatpour split his time over the hours leading toward the sun’s fullest coverage fielding questions from novices, sharing his expertise from a station highlighting sunspots and offering brief megaphone alerts to the swarming crowd.
His announcements ranged from reminders to not look directly at the eclipse without the proper eyewear, to updates on when the event would be at its fullest around 10:15 a.m.
Looking out along the craned-neck crowd, Janatpour struggled to recall the last time so many people came to the campus to enjoy a solar event.
Dan Priven-Troncoso, one of the students from Janatpour’s department, shared the educators’ appreciation for the rare chance to seize broad interest in science.
“It’s absolutely wonderful and great and exciting,” said Priven-Troncoso, who offered guidance to the crowd from one of the school telescopes.
The student who is hoping to eventually work as an educator said he believes fervor for the eclipse could be parlayed into growing general interest in science.
“Astronomy is the gateway drug for science, because it is so inherently fascinating that even people who have no interest in science otherwise think astronomy is compelling,” he said. “So once they learn astronomy is interesting, some choose to go into astronomy or physics or chemistry or whatever. But astronomy is what brings people in.”
He added the ability of large groups to collectively enjoy rare events together magnifies the appeal of astronomy — a point which resonated with San Mateo resident Saskia Chan, who also attended the CSM event.
“It’s great to see everyone out,” said Chan, while sitting in the lawn with her son Jake as they watched the sun gradually darken.
Jake Chan, who will enter the third-grade at the International School of the Peninsula next week, got a kick out of the unique vision in the sky.
“When I look at the sun, it kind of reminds me of a yellow moon,” he said.
Eric Williamson, who recently graduated from CSM, said the opportunity to enjoy the eclipse with a large crowd was also his inspiration for returning to his former campus.
“It’s awesome to see everyone come out here and enjoy it,” he said.
Ernesto Valladares, who started his first semester at the college when classes went into session last week, agreed.
“It’s pretty cool event. I like how people are gathered for it,” he said.
Valladares, 18, said he had not watched a solar eclipse before and though he enjoyed the experience, he was a bit disappointed the total blackout would not be visible from Northern California.
With relatives in Oregon, where the total full eclipse could be seen, Valladares said he had considered vacationing north but could not afford to skip his first full week of classes.
Despite the slight letdown, he expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to watch the event from his new school.
“Not a lot of schools or colleges are doing this,” he said. “They even give you glasses.”
As the large group gathered and together enjoyed the experience, Priven-Troncoso said he hoped momentum would be established not just in scientific interest, but building something more important as well.
“Billions are going to see this today in some capacity, and that’s really remarkable. To the degree that people want to feel kinship with people around the world, this is something — no matter their history, politics, religion or views — they can see this and experience it together,” he said.