Sunday, April 7, 2024

Astronomy and Family: The 1945 Eclipse

This post comes as many prepare to head off to hopefully witness a total eclipse tomorrow, April 8, 2024.

There are a couple Princeton connections to the total eclipse that took place on July 9, 1945--one being a "Princeton Party", presumably from Princeton, that journeyed to Montana for the event. The other has to do with a renowned astronomer named Chandrasekhar, whom Princeton sought to add to its faculty the following year. But I primarily want to tell of a familial connection I have to that eclipse nearly 80 years ago.

From a biography of my father, astronomer Al Hiltner: "In 1945 Hiltner and Chandrasekhar went to Canada to photograph a total eclipse of the sun. This represented a unique collaboration with the theorist Chandrasekhar, for I believe that the paper showing those photographs remains the only observational research paper ever published by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar." 

I found these photos, probably taken by my father, online. That may well be the family tent in the background, more often used for canoe trips, with Chandra standing in the foreground, maintaining the formality of a suit in the outback of Manitoba, Canada. 

They had chosen to set up on "a slight ridge commanding a clear view of the eastern sky some five miles southeast of Pine River."

It looks like they even installed a fence around their site, perhaps to discourage cattle or other animals from disturbing their equipment.

The combination of all their preparations and some good luck made for a successful mission:
"On July 9th morning the eastern sky was cloudy, but the drifting clouds produced a clear region some twenty-five minutes before totality. The entire sky clouded over again half an hour later."

By July 1945, Germany had surrendered and Japan would soon thereafter. According to wikipedia, Chandra worked in the Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds during WW II. He would surely have collaborated with Veblen, who oversaw scientific work at Aberdeen. That Princeton offered Chandra a position one year later, after Veblen's close friend, Henry Norris Russell, retired, may not be coincidental. Princeton's interest resulted in the doubling of Chandra's salary, as U. of Chicago increased his pay to match Princeton's offer. 

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