How One UNR Professor Is Using The Eclipse For Research

Aug 21, 2017

A solar eclipse is set to sweep across much of the U.S. Monday morning. And while northern Nevada is not in the direct path, residents here will get a rare glimpse as the moon passes in front of the sun.

One University of Nevada, Reno professor is headed up to Oregon to not only take in the eclipse, but also to hopefully bring back some new findings about the cosmos.

Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Billman sat down with our science reporter Noah Glick to learn more.

Credit University of Nevada, Reno

So who is this UNR professor? What does he study?

His name is Friedwardt Winterberg. He’s in the physics department at UNR and has been with the university for decades. He had this idea actually back in the 1950s to put atomic clocks into satellites that were orbiting the Earth. And it’s actually had a major impact, because that is now the basis for global positioning systems today.

So he’s done a lot of work with physics, astrophysics, and he has a big interest in looking at the future of space travel actually.

What is he trying to test during the eclipse?

He has a theory that he wants to test, but before we can get there, we have to understand a few things.

First, in the center of the sun there’s this thing called a dynamo. It’s essentially a giant generator of energy. Scientists know that it exists, but nobody really knows how strong it is. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity 100 years ago, dynamos emit gravitational waves. Those are essentially the ripples of space time that you might hear in sci-fi movies.

What Winterberg is trying to do is essentially measure those waves to see how strong the dynamo is inside of the sun.

Where does the eclipse fit into all of this? Why do this research during the eclipse?

So here’s where we get into the crux of his theory. In the 1950s another scientist actually noticed a change during a solar eclipse, much like the one we’ll see Monday. That’s called the Allais Effect. Basically, there was a change in gravity during that eclipse, and one of the theories surrounding that is that maybe the moon--when it passed in front of the sun--it either absorbed those gravitational waves or actually bent those gravitational waves. There are a few theories floating around about that.

But what Winterberg believes is the moon is acting like a lens, rather than a shield for those waves, so he actually wants to test that idea. It’s kind of like having a magnifying glass on a summer day.

What kind of impact could this finding have on the larger scientific community?

He’ll be the first to admit that this may not have any major impact on the average Joe’s daily life. But it does provide a few things.

“We know not really very much about the center of the sun,” he says. “Astrophysicists would have another powerful tool to look into the center of stars, get a much better idea about stellar structure.”

He’s saying that by learning more about our sun, our own star in our solar system, we can learn more about other stars in the cosmos. So the more we learn about stellar structures and gravitational waves, the more potential we have as humans for space travel and for other pie-in-the-sky kind of things.

Ultimately, it moves science forward to the next generation and it provides another baseline for the next generation of scientists to continue this work.

Another thing it does, is it actually proves another aspect of Einstein’s theory of relativity true. And at 100 years old, that theory is withstanding the test of time pretty well.