Geri Woodlief shares her celestial experiences
PRINCETON — Though people used to hide in fear from solar eclipses and view celestial events as ominous harbingers of doom and destruction, Geri Woodlief of Princeton has enjoyed traveling the world to experience them in totality.
A retired teacher, her early visits to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and astronomy classes taken in college helped cement a lifelong love of appreciating the science of the universe. She particularly enjoyed the mythological stories associated with the constellations.
“Hearing those stories, I began to see them take shape in the sky. Once I saw Orion’s belt and then was also able to see his sword hanging down and how it fit in with all the other constellations and their stories; I just loved it,” Woodlief said.
She also worked with her brother in order to build their own telescope. And it wasn’t just assembling a kit, for they made it entirely themselves, including the mirrors.
Solar eclipses though are the astronomical phenomenon which have really captured her interest. She’s taken three scientific sea cruises, in 1972, 1973 and 1977, to view them in their ideal locations, where totality had the longest duration.
“The best viewing locations were out in the ocean and since clouds are always the biggest concern, we could have moved the ship if needed, but we were lucky,” Woodlief said.
While viewing any partial solar eclipse, or any phase before or after totality, eye protection is required. However, during the few minutes of total coverage it can be viewed safely with the naked eye.
“Not needing glasses is the treat of traveling to see totality,” she said.
Her first on-board experience took her to the North Atlantic, her next to the waters of Africa and the third to the Mid-Pacific. During these cruises, she was also able to experience what life was like in Nova Scotia, Senegal, the Galapagos Islands, Colombia and the Panama Canal.
“This was before mass tourism and no one was really prepared to handle a group of tourists the way they do today. We rode in old school buses and ate in people’s homes and got to know them and experience how they lived,” Woodlief said.
This was also before the development of modern technology and those on board with her included a wide variety of scientists who were there to study the different aspects of eclipses and to also help ensure ideal viewing.
“Instead of the usual things you’d expect for entertainment on a cruise, we took classes,” she said.
Her 1973 cruise also included an opportunity to mingle with none other than Neil Armstrong.
“My brother couldn’t believe I didn’t get his autograph, but I told him when you’re drinking with someone you don’t ask for their signature,” she laughed.
An autograph Woodlief did receive while on the same cruise was that of author Isaac Asimov, who inscribed one of his books for her.
While partial solar eclipses occur two to five times a year, a total solar eclipse will only occur roughly every two years. Woodlief said to be able to experience a total solar eclipse in your area of the world may be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
“That the sun, being 93 million miles away, can be covered by the moon, which is 400 times smaller, and you think of everything that has to happen for that to occur at the right moment, you’re just in awe. You feel so small when you realize it,” she said.
In preparation for the Aug. 21 eclipse, the Princeton Public Library (PPL) held “Darkness at Noon,” an informational program Woodlief hosted. Patrons learned about the different types of eclipses, how and why they occur, and how to safely experience them. She was also instrumental in getting the city to help sponsor the purchase of eclipse glasses which were available at the library.
“My main goal is to save people’s eyes. You don’t put a hole in a piece of cardboard and look at the sun. The sun is dangerous and will burn your eyes,” Woodlief said.