“You can’t take the sky away from me,” MU astronomy professor Angela Speck says

By Jing Ren

It’s 6 in the morning, and MU Astronomy Director Angela Speck is already working at her kitchen table.

After boiling two eggs, she sits down, opens Facebook and begins spreading the gospel of the 2017 eclipse.

Speck can’t contain her enthusiasm for the Aug. 21 event, which will be the first total solar eclipse within the contiguous United States since 1979. When a local newscast broadcast catches her eye, she shares it on her timeline—one of the ways she, as an astrophysicist, can engage the public in her enthusiasm for science.

The most visible promoter of the eclipse in Columbia, Speck also has been spreading the enthusiasm for it nationwide through scientific societies and meetings. In 2014, she helped establish a national task force to develop scientific understanding of the eclipse. At this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science conference at Boston, she gave a public talk alongside other experts.

It is, as Speck says, the only total solar eclipse most Americans will ever see.

For the love of the eclipse

Not only does Speck convey the message to people across the country, she keeps it local too, giving speeches to chambers of commerce and churches statewide.

By now, Speck’s message about the eclipse is well-rehearsed: The eclipse will cut a path across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. If the weather permits, ten to 12 million people who live along the path will be able to see the “totality.” They can also see the solar corona, which is the sun’s outer atmosphere; Baily’s Beads, when a sliver of the sun turns to look like broken beads of light during the beginning and end of the eclipse;  and the Diamond Ring, which is when a beam of light peeks through.

Outside the path, people will see only a partial eclipse, still an amazing sight, but nothing like the rare total eclipse.

“Columbia lies directly on the path of totality, ” Speck emphasizes during local speeches.

Created with GIMP

This image shows the path of totality of the eclipse. Photo Courtesy of NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

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This image shows how a total solar eclipse looks like. Photo Courtesy of Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel

Nationally, the eclipse will start at around 10:15 a.m. Pacific time on the West Coast and end around 2:45 p.m. Eastern time (11:45 a.m. Pacific time) on the East Coast. In all, it will take about 90 minutes to go across the country, but it only lasts at most two minutes and 40 seconds at a given location.

In Columbia, the moon will begin crossing the sun at 11:45 a.m. local time and finish at 2:40 p.m. The totality will begin at 1:12 p.m. and end at 1:15 p.m. The city will host several viewing events, according to the Show Me Totality website.

Alan Whittington, Speck’s husband and the Chair and Professor of Department of Geological Sciences at MU, said that promoting the eclipse is more than a full-time job to Speck.

“She has always been very busy,” he said. “She is not someone who is very comfortable with not being busy.”

A national leader

As the organizer of the American Astronomical Society Solar Eclipse Taskforce, Speck has helped the organization launch workshops, publish journal articles and attend national science meetings to spread information about the eclipse.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference at Boston this year, Speck, together with her colleagues from the taskforce, presented a session called “Bringing the Excitement of the 2017 Solar Eclipse to the Public.”

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Speck stands with members of the taskforce at the 2017 AAAS conference in Boston. Photo by Jing Ren

“We want as many as people to come to the path to see it, while at the same time, we want to get everybody who cannot get there to watch the partial eclipse safely,” Speck said as she tried on a solar eclipse glasses labelled with an MU logo. The glasses contain a special-purpose solar filter that can prevent damage from looking at the sun directly with naked eyes.

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Speck gives a speech about the eclipse at the 2017 AAAS conference in Boston. Photo by Jing Ren

This is only one example of all the public speeches Speck has been doing nationally about the eclipse. On her Facebook Page, Speck posted a list of her 31 public speeches across the country from Feb. 27 to June 25.

Most of her public speeches are in the evenings, Whittington said, which means if the locations are far away from town, Speck will stay there overnight and return home the next day.

She is willing to talk to anyone, especially those who may not have known about the eclipse before. After she went to talk to church members at Bethel Baptist Church at Columbia, she felt the enthusiasm. “The church members seemed to be very excited. Some of them talked to me after my speech and followed me to my other speeches,” she said.

She also works with NASA’s Heliophysics Division, a group whose members study the nature of the star and its effects on space, to share information about the eclipse and coordinate with them to avoid possible duplication of their work.

Linda Godwin, another professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at MU, is amazed by how Speck manages her time.

“She is a very, very, very busy person, trying to keep everything going,” Godwin said.

A well-respected astrophysicist and teacher

Originally from the United Kingdom, Speck did her undergraduate studies at Queen Mary University of London and obtained her Ph.D. degree in Astronomy from University College, both of which are at London. After doing one year of her Postdoctoral at University College London, she moved to the United States at 1999 to continue her postdoctoral study at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After graduation, she came to MU as a visiting assistant professor at 2002. She is currently a professor in the Department of Astronomy and the Director of Astronomy.

Her research area focuses on the study of infrareds and stardust. She also expands her research by involving other disciplines. Whittington said that Speck is open to scientific perspectives coming from a different field.

“You cannot take the sky from me” is how Speck described her love of observation in astrophysics. “The sky is always there. I can always be there no matter what else happens,” she said.

Haojing Yan, another professor at her department, said that Speck is well-respected in her field as a teacher.

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Speck stands in front of the blackboards that she keeps for aiming her office hours at her office at MU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Photo Courtesy of Jing Ren

In her 15 years at MU, Speck has worked to engage with her students and constantly develop better teaching approaches. On her personal website, she writes about her teaching philosophy:

“We must convey the importance of cutting-edge science to a recession-burned public, while also ensuring that our new generations of professional scientists are equipped for the changing technologies and modes of research. I continue to work to improve my own knowledge of educational practice and theory.”

Sarah Poor, a junior in the Physics Department at MU, said that Speck stands out especially because of her support for female physics students. Poor does research with Speck on stardust, using astronomical data to determine the chemical makeup of the dust surrounding a particular star.

One day Poor came into Speck’s office for their weekly research meeting on the verge of tears. “I had had a terribly busy week and was feeling as though the weight of world was on my shoulders, and I was not strong enough to keep it up much longer,” Poor recalled. She said Speck spent the whole meeting consoling her. “She told me her own experiences as a student and a teacher to make me feel like I was less alone.

“Angela reminded me that it is easy to feel as though your peers are always outperforming you, but you must always remember that everyone is battling their own demons, and physics is not a science that anyone can master in a day. It takes a lot of practice,” Poor said.

Spreading enthusiasm for science

Anahita Zare, a PhD student at the Chemistry Department at MU, met Speck at a science outreach talk at Stephens Lake Park at 2013. Zare is now the president of the Science Communication and Public Engagement group on campus, which promotes better science outreach. Speck is the faculty advisor.

As Einstein once said, if scientists cannot explain science to their grandmothers, they don’t really understand science.

“It is important that people understand what science is and how it works,” Speck said.

Speck thinks that people should be able to appreciate science, even if they are not scientists. “You don’t have to be a wine-maker to appreciate wine or an artist to appreciate art. Neither do you need to be a real scientist to appreciate the world of science.”

Speck also thinks that the public financial support for science should be paid off. Because the money that scientists use for doing research comes largely from taxpayer funding, “it is important to let the public care about what we are doing because they pay for it,” she said.

While she keeps teaching the public about science, Speck herself in turn is being constantly educated by her students and the public. One thing she learned through public speaking was to question herself.

Meanwhile, Speck’s extroverted personality makes her stand out. Her hair is often dyed some unusual hue, and the door to her office is full of colorful stickers and pictures.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” one reads.

On her Facebook page, she identifies herself as a “wicked witch” because she is a huge fan of The Wicked Witch of the West.

She is also very active on social media, not just for promoting the eclipse, but for expressing her opinions on matters of social justice.

“Every inequality is incorrect,” Speck said in a Facebook post about how dozens of headstones were vandalized at Jewish cemetery.

This is Speck, highly devoted to what she believes and does, and unabashed about it.

As her student Poor puts: “It is hard not to love someone with a PhD who also wears galaxy leggings.”

It’s only a few months until Aug 21. Speck has no clue what her life will be like after that. “Honestly sleep will be a big part of what I will do,” she said.

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