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This Hawai‘i Astronomer Chases Solar Eclipses Around the World Trying to Solve the Biggest Mysteries of the Sun

University of Hawai‘i astronomer Shadia Habbal treks through deserts, crosses oceans and braves polar bears in pursuit of a fleeting glimpse of a total solar eclipse.


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Mysteries of the Sun 

Peter Aniol, left, and Pavel Starha, right, check the alignment of the imaging instrument mount.

The interior of the sun is an inferno, reaching temperatures of around 15 million degrees. The sun’s surface is significantly cooler, a mere 6,000 degrees. But travel outward through the solar corona, and the heat rises again, to between 1 million and 2 million degrees. It’s this mysterious temperature change that scientists are struggling to explain.


The corona is a scientific enigma. As the outer atmosphere of the sun, it’s the origin point of the solar storms and flares that can knock out satellites, disrupt the electrical grid and illuminate Earth’s sky with the Northern Lights. But the force that governs those powerful phenomena—the sun’s magnetic fields—is completely invisible.


That’s one reason Habbal has focused on studying iron, one of the most abundant elements found in the corona. Heated to extreme temperatures, iron, like other elements, becomes ionized, which means its atoms lose electrons. By placing special filters over her camera lenses during an eclipse, Habbal is able to capture images of the light reflected by two kinds of these altered iron particles, effectively creating a temperature map of the solar corona.


She leans over her desk to indicate a photograph of an eclipse on her wall, tracing the overlapping halos and plumes with her finger. Red lines indicate iron at 2 million degrees, green at 1 million degrees. But it’s not just the temperature that’s interesting. “When you see this, then you realize, well, there’s a lot of structure in the corona,” she says. 



Because the particles tend to ionize at the lines of the sun’s magnetic fields, observing where they gather and disperse can also help scientists start to understand these invisible boundaries—much like watching driftwood move through an ocean current.


The Making of a Scientist

Shadia Habbal (left in red hat) being interviewed after the eclipse by a Norwegian TV crew.


Habbal grew up in Syria, in a family of teachers who emphasized the importance of education for all their children. She was enrolled in a private school where she learned French, English and Arabic. In ninth grade, a dynamic teacher inspired her dream of becoming a scientist, with experiments that tested electricity and magnetism.


“There was something fascinating to me about physics,” she says. “I still feel that it’s the foundation of all sciences.” 


Around the same time, she read the life story of Marie Curie, and the female physicist who pioneered the study of radiation became Habbal’s idol. Syria was a progressive place at the time, before the rise of religious extremism and violence that affects the region today, and Habbal saw no reason she might not follow in Curie’s footsteps. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ Never,” she says. “Ironically, I never felt discriminated against, except when I first came to the United States.”


She graduated from the University of Damascus, went on to study physics at the American University of Beirut, then moved to the United States to get her doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in the 1970s. It was there that she noticed her gender sometimes left her the odd woman out—she sometimes felt excluded at social gatherings, and made a mental note of the lower salaries paid to women. Even so, Habbal never felt that her gender stood in her way.


“I mean, I never think of myself as a ‘woman scientist,’” she says. “I didn’t feel any inhibition, so I was able to compete and be as accomplished as—or even exceed the accomplishments of—my male colleagues.”


It was Habbal’s interest in magnetism that drew her to study the sun. Then, in 1995, almost out of curiosity, she planned a trip to observe a solar eclipse in India. She traveled with a small group, and brought only enough equipment to capture a few images—she was still using photographic film at the time—but the experience is fixed indelibly in her memory. 


“It was early in the morning in India, around 8 o’clock. The sun was at the minimum of its activity. And you could see the streamers almost shooting to infinity,” she recalls. “I’ve never seen a corona like it since—I could almost feel it.” Totality lasted only 42 seconds. She was hooked.


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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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