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'Meh' about the total solar eclipse? 3 reasons you should be excited, according to scientists

The August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse as seen from Tennessee
Nick Swartsell
The August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse as seen from Tennessee.

April 8's total solar eclipse will be a unique opportunity for many people to see something rare and amazing. For some scientists, it's also an opportunity to get a bit closer to answers for some burning questions they want to know more about.

The sun, of course, will be centerstage for the celestial drama. Director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University Dr. Shannon Schmoll says there will be plenty to see for researchers who want to know more about our closest star.

"Right now the sun is nearing its peak of solar maximum," she says. "It's this 11-year cycle with a lot more activity and sunspots happening; solar flares and prominences and solar storms. There's a lot going on. It was near minimum during the last eclipse, so we're heading toward maximum which should give us a lot more to look at."

Insights into the sun and Earth

The eclipse also makes it easier to see the base of the sun's corona — its outer atmosphere. It's normally drowned out by brighter parts of the sun, but the darkness of the eclipse should make it more visible to telescopes.

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Scientists will also use the unusual event to study more about the Earth's ionosphere, Schmoll says. That's the Earth's upper atmosphere, starting about 55 miles up and ending in space. It's highly electrically charged, and temporary disruption of sunlight there could teach scientists a lot. NASA will send three rockets into the ionosphere to gather data — one 45 minutes before the eclipse, one during the actual event and one 45 minutes afterward.

Animal reaction

A total solar eclipse can give you otherworldly sensations — day turns almost to night, temperatures drop suddenly and significantly. Even the wind can change.

It's impressive enough with our human understanding of what's happening. But Cornell University's Dr. Andrew Farnsworth is part of a team who want to know how animals experience it.

"There's a wonderful opportunity to do some science," Farnsworth says. "And in my case, and my colleagues', we're thinking about sensory ecology — the ways animals perceive their world."

The team will use weather radar to see if the eclipse triggers unexpected behaviors among birds, insects and bats. That radar system spans the continent — including the path of totality. And while it usually tracks rain and wind, it's also quite good at capturing the collective movements of various winged creatures.

Farnsworth and his team will be looking out for whether the sudden plunge into darkness causes animals to adopt their usual nocturnal habits or take up completely unexpected behaviors.

Human behavior

And how will the eclipse affect our own human behaviors? Scientists are interested in that, too.

Watching the solar eclipse April 8 will likely be an awe-inspiring experience for many. But could it make us more social and less self-centered? University of California Irvine social psychology professor Paul Piff says past research suggests that's the case.

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"In broad strokes, what we're finding is that experiences that bring about awe — and most predominantly really powerful, fleeting experiences like the solar eclipse — seem to attune people and connect us to one another," Piff says.

Previous studies surveying large numbers of people who witnessed past eclipses found people left the experience with a more empathetic and collectively focused mindset. Piff says there's something about the enormity and rarity of events like eclipses that drive people to seek connection. He says the coming eclipse is a good opportunity to test any impact the rare astronomical phenomenon will have on our collective psychology.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.