‘Everyone here is a scientist’: Understanding the ‘observer effect’ during an eclipse

“It’s not only just the science that we’re learning about, but it’s about each other, and we’re all here in the same moment experiencing the same thing,” says scientist Sarah Auriemma.

By Texas StandardApril 8, 2024 3:45 pm, ,

It has been said that the solar eclipse can be life-changing. And this is not mere hyperbole – just ask scientists like Sarah Auriemma, a data analyst for the Space Weather Group at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

Auriemma was in Kerrville doing research related to solar phenomenon and joined Texas Standard with more about the “observer effect.”

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You’re here with the Solar Wind Sherpas as well. How many eclipses have you personally observed? 

Sarah Auriemma: So this is my second total solar eclipse. I was in New Mexico for the annular eclipse back in October. So, yeah, I went to Chile in 2019. That was a wonderful experience, and it really did change the trajectory of my life.

I was an undergrad and had an amazing opportunity to be with my mentors and the Sherpas. And I’ve really grown as a scientist since then. I’ve since gone to grad school, got my master’s, and I have a career, and that’s amazing. And I still get to do these things. 

That’s wonderful. Let’s talk about something that astronauts have often talked about, and I think we’ve all heard it in the news reports after they land back here on Earth: They say, when in space, they experienced something called an “overview effect” or “observer effect.” Can you explain what that is? 

Yeah, I think it’s really the human aspect. And when you see a celestial phenomena that really any human in the path of totality can see, it really sets you right there. And you realize that how small you are in the universe.

And I think it really brings everyone together, whether you’re a scientist, an artist, or just an audience member at the folk festival. 

Michael Minasi / Texas Standard

Attendees of the Kerrclipse Festival watch the solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, from Chapel Hill in Kerrville.

It’s interesting because this is something normally just, I mean, astronauts experience – but you have you personally experienced this observing an eclipse?

For sure. Yeah. During the total solar eclipse in 2019, I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t even know you could see the corona before I started studying it.

And I just remember I was doing my work, I pressed the buttons on the computer, did my job, and then looked up and tears started pouring down my face.

What was the feeling? What was the sensation? And why do you think that was? Do you think this has to do with the fact that you’re a scientist, or something else?

I’m not sure. You know, I think everyone here is a scientist. We’re all observing the same thing. I think it’s really beautiful. And, yeah – sorry, I get a little choked up.

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No, I totally understand. But there’s something about the grandeur of it.

Yeah, for sure. It’s just the the pure awe. And I really love hearing everybody cheering during the eclipse, and just the enthusiasm. And it’s not only just the science that we’re learning about, but it’s about each other, and we’re all here in the same moment experiencing the same thing.

And even if there are clouds in the sky today, I am just so happy to be here. And we’ve had a beautiful welcome here at Kerrville. So it’s been great.

You know, presumably everyone experiences this differently. I mean, if you don’t feel this, don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with you or anything like that. But it sounds like you’re a bit of a of a poet yourself. It sounds like you sort of lean into that.

Yeah, everyone does experience it differently. But, you know, I may be a little bit emotional – I just love it. And even during the annular eclipse, during the ring of fire, I remember I heard people in back of me right when it got to the max solar eclipse there. They were like, “why is everyone clapping?” And I’m like, “I don’t know!”

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