Professor of Physics and Astronomy Brian Murphy has traveled great distances for an optimal view of a total solar eclipse—to Manitoba, Canada (1979), Vietnam (1995), and southern Illinois, with students and alumni (2017).
On April 8, 2024, all he’ll have to do is exit the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium.
That day, for the first time in roughly 1,200 years, Butler will be in the path of totality of a solar eclipse. For three minutes and 50 seconds, from 3:06:04 to 3:09:54 PM, the moon will completely block the sun, and Murphy will be in his element.
“It’s the Super Bowl of Super Bowls of astronomical events,” says Murphy, who is also the Director of the Observatory and Planetarium. “It’s the World Cup- Super Bowl-Tour de France-Indy 500 all tied into one—not from the research side but from the awe-inspiring side. It’s just an amazing sight, and you really can’t describe it till you see it.”
What you’ll see that day is what early Asian cultures thought was a dragon eating the sun and Native Americans considered a time of transformation not to be feared. Assuming the weather is good and the sky is clear, Murphy says the first thing you’ll notice is the slowly dimming sky, particularly as totality nears. If you look down during the partial phases of the eclipse, you’ll see rays of sunlight poking through the tree canopy. Normally, you’d see circles being projected onto the ground. But they’ll slowly begin to take on crescent shapes, mimicking the sun as it becomes more and more eclipsed.
As totality approaches—during the 10 minutes or so before 3:06 PM—things will start to change rapidly as more and more of the sun is blocked.
“And when you get to that final one percent sliver of the sun left, that’s when the streetlights start to come on, the birds start roosting, and insects chirping,” he says. “If you look to the west, you’ll see this wall of darkness coming at you. That’s the moon’s shadow, approaching at 2,000 miles per hour. And then the last tiny speck of the sun’s surface is visible along with the corona beginning to make its appearance. That’s called the diamond ring effect because it looks like this bright thing on the ring of the corona.”
After that, totality.
“The moon’s shadow, the column of darkness, is fully on top of you and it looks as though the sun is setting everywhere along the horizon because it’s still shining 50–60 miles away from you. It’s like dusk. The brighter stars and planets will appear, and the totally eclipsed sun will appear as a black orb with its beautiful outer corona fully revealed.”
Another thing you’ll see that day is a University deep into the spirit of the event. The Observatory is already selling protective glasses to view the eclipse ($2.00 each) and is offering a special show at the Planetarium about the eclipse. On the day of the eclipse, there will be a dozen telescopes equipped with full glass solar filters outside the observatory for the public to get an even better view.
If that weren’t enough, Murphy, who is retiring in 2024 after 31 years at Butler, is the eclipse’s biggest cheerleader. “Get in the path of totality, even if it isjust a couple of miles within the path,” he says.
“If you don’t have totality, you’re not seeing the big event. It’s like watching pee-wee football vs. the Super Bowl. There’s no comparison.”
And if you miss this total solar eclipse, there isn’t another over Indianapolis until 2153.
Aarran Shaw, who takes over when Brian Murphy retires from Butler University at the end of the 2023–2024 school year, has massive shoes to fill. Over 31 years, Murphy has built a tremendous legacy as both a professor of Physics and Astronomy and of a popular Core Curriculum course called “The Astronomical Universe”; as the leader who oversaw a $700,000 renovation of the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium; and as a mentor to hundreds of students.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of mentoring is witnessing the growth and progress my students achieve through my guidance,” Murphy says. “Over time, it’s not uncommon for students I have mentored for several years to transition from being mentees to becoming valued colleagues. Above all, my greatest satisfaction lies in observing my students achieve their career aspirations and flourish.”
In any given year, Murphy has 5–10 research mentees. One of those was Nathan Villiger, who graduated from Butler in December 2017. As a first-year student, Villiger started working as a tour guide at the Observatory and Planetarium, where he learned to operate telescopes and planetarium equipment and to communicate scientific information to audiences of all backgrounds.
In subsequent years, they worked together on observational astronomy research, remotely operating telescopes in Arizona, Chile, and the Canary Islands from a remote observing lab in the department. They took thousands of images of star clusters, then used a specialized astronomy software to find and characterize variable stars (stars whose brightness changes over time) within the star clusters.
Villiger finished his PhD at the University of Oregon in June 2023 and thanked Murphy in the acknowledgements section of his dissertation:
“Thanks to the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Butler for giving me the foundation to make this possible,” he wrote. “I especially want to thank my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Brian Murphy, for giving me opportunities to work as a tour guide at the Observatory and get involved in research from the very beginning of my time there. You had a huge impact on my life.”