Photograph by Jay Pasachoff
Photograph by Owen Westbrook
Birthplace: New York City
Current Town: Williamstown, Massachusetts
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An astronomer. When I came to the 25th reunion of my sixth-grade class, and we were all playing the game of guessing who was who after all those years, some people said, "Jay, you are the only one who followed through on his ambition."
How did you get started in your field of work?
When I was a first-year student at Harvard, I enrolled in one of the new freshman seminars run by senior faculty. Since I had been interested in astronomy while at the Bronx High School of Science, making a six-inch Newtonian telescope, including grinding the mirror at the Hayden Planetarium's workroom of the Optical Division of the Amateur Astronomers Association, I enrolled in the astronomy seminar, run by Professor Donald H. Menzel, the director of the observatory and a specialist in studying the sun at eclipses and otherwise. There happened to be a total solar eclipse visible near Cambridge two weeks later, and Professor Menzel arranged to borrow a DC-3 to take his freshman seminar aloft. I was hooked. Later, I worked with Professor David Layzer as an undergraduate and a beginning graduate student. Then Dr. Robert Noyes invited me to go observing at the Sacramento Peak Observatory to study the solar chromosphere, which provided my Ph.D. observations. Ten years after my original studies with Professor Menzel, I worked with him as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard College Observatory on a National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration Grant to study the total solar eclipse of 1970 from Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico. We had a joint article in the August 1970 National Geographic magazine.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to astronomy?
Understanding the universe is a wonderful occupation.
What's a normal day like for you?
I have no normal day; each day I try to do whatever needs to be done, often overlapping some future projects. For example, today, I am preparing a class in Astronomy 101 for tomorrow; arranging future activities for my class when I am at a meeting in Europe next week to discuss planetary astronomy; corresponding with colleagues about our observations and about public education to do with the June 5-6, 2012, transit of Venus; and continuing to arrange our expedition for the May 20, 2012, annular eclipse of the sun in the western U.S. and the November 13-14, 2012, total solar eclipse in Queensland, Australia.
Do you have a hero?
Donald Menzel, who inspired me at Harvard to go on in astronomy and with the study of eclipses. Now that I have been to 57 solar eclipses, it is quite something to think back about that first eclipse he started me on in 1959 and number three that I worked with him in about 1970.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
On my dozens of eclipse expeditions and of expeditions to observe celestial objects such as Venus and Pluto, the circumstances are different each time. So it is always interesting to see what will occur.
What are your other passions?
Playing squash, the New York Times, and keeping up with what is going on in the world of science and the world of politics and public affairs.
What do you do in your free time?
What free time? My wife, Naomi, and I are glad to have our two daughters, their husbands, and our grandson, Sam, and granddaughter, Lily, in Washington and Pasadena, respectively, so I can be in a favorable research environment and also visit with them.
If you could have people do one thing to encourage the growth of scientific thought in the world, what would it be?
We can best save the world and save the people in it by voting for people who understand science, who can reason through critical arguments, and who are in favor of education of future generations as well as providing good jobs for as many people as possible.
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Inside National Geographic Magazine
As day plunges into night, the faithful gaze skyward, murmuring in awe. They wear Mylar glasses, hoist cameras, join hands. They are "eclipse chasers," and their numbers have been growing since the 1970s.
Out of the flocks of devoted professionals and amateurs who travel the world hoping to catch those rare minutes when the moon comes between the Earth and sun, casting a shadow over our planet, Pasachoff, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, may be the most seasoned.
In Their Words
Understanding the universe is a wonderful occupation.
Professor Pasachoff of Williams College describes some little known facts about eclipses.
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