Public Outreach

On the morning of August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the continental United States. The Moon’s shadow will also pass through Idaho, and visitors from all around the world will flock to our state.

Boise State has partnered with local libraries, astronomy clubs, and science museums to organize outreach events all over the state throughout 2017. With these partners, Boise State will host public presentations about the eclipse and provide eclipse shades for safe viewing.

You can find more information about the eclipse in Idaho at the Physics Dept’s website.

The calendar below shows the planned visits across Idaho. If you have questions, contact Prof. Brian Jackson (

This outreach effort is supported by a grant from the Idaho STEM Action Center and by donations from the Boise State community.

To those of you who have given to our Pony Up Campaign, thanks very much. We have raised more than $3,000. We are very gratified for your very generous donations to our Eclipse Outreach project.

Thanks to you, we will have a very robust and engaging public outreach effort this summer, reaching folks from all across our state. We’ve already scheduled several of the trips, with more to come. Keep checking this space for additional details on those events.

I’m also excited to announce that we just placed our order for eclipse shades, giving us nearly 13,000 pairs in total! That’s almost 13,000 pairs of eyeballs that will be able to safely enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event in August.

And if you haven’t donated yet, don’t worry – there’s still time to help out and get your own shades.

Once the shades come in, we’ll mail them out to qualified donors as quickly as we can. So keep an eye on your mailbox in the coming months.

And special thanks to donors Tracy Landauer, Justin McGilvery, and Robert Jahn.

Google’s TRAPPIST-1 doodle.

UPDATE: KBSX ran a story about our event this morning –

The seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1 reveal that rocky worlds are common in our galactic neighborhood. Three of the planets are in the habitable zone, the region around a star in which liquid water is possible. However, planets that are Earth-sized and in the habitable zone have merely cleared the first two hurdles for a planet to support life!

Join the Boise State Physics Department and Prof. Rory Barnes from University of Washington on Friday, April 7 at 7:30p in the Multi-Purpose Classroom Building, room 101 to learn about how these planets were discovered, what it means to us, and the potential of discovering life beyond our Solar System.

Contact Prof. Brian Jackson ( with any questions.

With 50-plus attendees, Friday’s event was a great success. Lots of great questions and feedback from the audience.

The next event will take place on Friday, Apr 7 at 7:30p with a talk from Prof. Rory Barnes of U Washington.

Dr. Penev was kind enough to share his presentation with me, and I’ve posted it below.

And our Pony Up Campaign finished on Sunday evening. Thanks so much to all our donors, particularly Mat Weaver, Danielle Weaver, Axel & Nancy Kappes, Scott Ki, Rex Hanson, Sonja Ward, and several very generous anonymous donors. Thanks to you all we will be able to pay for seven site visits around the state.

I had a great time talking about the August 21st solar eclipse at the Flying M in Nampa last night. A packed house asked lots of interesting questions about this unique celestial event, and I’ve posted my presentation below.

Several folks in the crowd kindly donated to our Pony Up Campaign to support additional public outreach, bringing us nearly halfway to our goal. One more week to go!

Thanks to our donors for their support, particularly Joann Mychals, Mark Funaiole, and M Lewis, as well as several anonymous donors.

Don’t forget about our public astronomy event on Friday, Mar 3 at 7:30p in the Physics Building, when we’ll have Dr. Kaloyan Penev of Princeton join us to talk about his exoplanet research. If the weather’s clear, we’ll also do some stargazing.


At the invite of a colleague, I recently visited beautiful Fort Collins CO, a mecca for beer-drinkers, and on a Saturday morning, we bounced from brewery to brewery, enjoying the local flavor.

The foudre at Funkwerks

While visiting Funkwerks brewery, I noticed an impressive barrel in the warehouse where they aged their beers – it was about 6 feet tall, 6 feet deep, and visibly ellipsoidal. It occurred to me making an elliptical barrel would take a lot more work than making a circular barrel, so I asked the tour guide about it.

She said the barrel, called a foudre, had originally stored bourbon, and Funkwerks was reusing it to flavor the beer with the bourbon-infused wood. It was ellipsoidal because that gave more contact between the beer and the barrel interior than a circular barrel.

Well, naturally, I didn’t believe her about the shape, so between sips of saison, I tried to calculate how much more surface area you got for the trouble of making an elliptical barrel. Turns out she was right.

First, to estimate the interior area of the barrel, I needed to calculate the circumference of an ellipse. Surprising to me, there is no simple way to exactly calculate an ellipse’s circumference, only approximations.

So to first order, the circumference of the barrel C = 2 π a √[(2 – e2)/2], where e is the eccentricity of the ellipse: e = 0 for a circle and gets closer and closer to one for a very elongated barrel. The area for the elliptical face of the barrel is A = π a2 √(1 – e2). The volume of beer that a barrel can hold is A times its depth, and its interior surface area is C times its depth.

For a more and more elongated barrel (e → 1), the area (and volume) gets very small (1 – e2 → 0), but the circumference approaches a finite value since 2 – e2 → 1. All this means that you can, in principle, make a barrel for which almost all the beer is in contact with the barrel’s surface, maximizing the amount of flavor it soaks up.

The Ediacaran critter Swartpuntia germsi

This trade-off between interior volume and surface area actually plays an important role in the evolution of modern animals.

Some very early forms of life, like the leaf-shaped Swartpuntia germsi which lived more than 500 million years ago, lacked a mouth or anus, and these critters exchanged nutrients and waste directly through their skin via osmosis.

The amount of food required and waste generated depend on amount of living matter inside the critter, i.e. on the critter’s volume. But the rate of exchange was limited by their surface areas, so critters that grew too large could starve or choke on the waste trapped inside their bodies.

Ediacarans like Swartpuntia solved this surface-area-to-volume ratio problem by having very thin and flat bodies to minimize their interior volumes and maximize their surface areas. Many modern animals solve this problem by having a highly fractal circulatory and digestive systems to maximize the exchange rate.

So, by using elliptical barrels, Funkwerks is not only making very tasty beer – they are taking advantage of technology developed 500 million years ago.

Visited the Boise Public Library for a Teen Science Café yesterday evening to talk about the Physics Dept. at Boise State. The crowd of students and their parents were wonderful, and the presentation I gave is below.

It was a nice chance to talk about our Pony Up Campaign to support public outreach for the upcoming solar eclipse. We’re just finishing week two of the campaign, and it’s received a lot of local interest. Thanks to all our donors, especially Beverly Takeuchi and our anonymous donors.