A Personal Voyage of Scientific Discovery

“We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars?”  ~Carl Sagan

Image Credit: Orrery by Ant-ix


I love to learn about space and space exploration. When I was a little girl, I would wake up early before school to watch the space shuttle launch, and dream about one day going to Space Camp. I loved going to the planetarium, and I would collect star books and try to find the constellations in the night sky. As my own daughter has grown up, we have begun to share a curiosity about what lies within and beyond our solar system.

I was reminded of this love when I came across these stunning videos by John Boswell of  Symphony of Science. His video “We are All Connected” is enchanting. It reminded me of a passion for science that I had forgotten about during the course of growing up. It introduced me to Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I was hooked, and I wanted to know more. Because of that catalyst, I found out about Cosmos: A Personal Voyage which was Carl Sagan’s televised tribute to explorers, the universe, our planet, and the curiosity and compassion of humankind.

My daughter and I began our own personal voyage as she and I watched these episodes every night during the course of a year. She soaked his words up like a sponge, and soon began looking for answers about atoms, stars, elements, and of course, apple pie. To this day, whenever apple pie is mentioned, she will indignantly admonish Carl Sagan for wasting such a nice apple pie that someone baked for him. By the time she turned 6, Kat had Carl Sagan and David Attenborough  as people that she fondly looked up to, and aspired to be like when she grew up.

It is a tribute to these, and so many other wonderful people who share such a loving passion of life, that the love of curiosity and scientific discovery can flourish in every human being. Any child who asks “why?”, any adult who wonders “how did that happen?”, and any person who seeks to find out more indulges in scientific discovery. I think that every child is a natural scientist, and every adult can be too, if you allow yourself to ask questions, find answers, and accept being wrong so you can learn how to be right.

This love of discovery has led Kat and I to find our own ways of seeking an understanding of the workings of our world. When we heard about the Annular Solar Eclipse on May 20th, and realized that we could actually witness it if we had the tools, we were determined to make it happen. I had never previously witnessed a solar eclipse, and I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to show Kat how the celestial bodies in our solar system can interact with each other. Even the very simple act of viewing a solar eclipse sparked discussions on orbit paths, size and distance, and light.

Photo of the 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse Photo Credit: Forrest Tanaka

In order to view our eclipse, we had to do some research. We found that there are a few ways to safely view a solar eclipse. You can use glasses specifically designed for looking at the bright sunlight during a solar eclipse, you can poke a small hole into a piece of paper and project the image on another surface, or you can build a pinhole viewing camera that will project the image on the inside of a cardboard box.

Because of the nearing eclipse, carriers of safe viewing glasses had all quickly sold out. Kat and I decided to make two pinhole viewing cameras and see which one worked the best. The first attempt comes from Big Shot Camera and involves using a PDF template to make a 2 inch cube viewer.

PDF Template for pinhole cube viewing camera Photo Credit: Big Shot Camera

This pinhole viewer was very easy to put together. All it required was a printer, card stock (we used photo paper), scissors, tape, and a thumbtack. A quick word of warning: Because we printed this on to photo paper, the ink was able to easily spread on to our hands and smudge the viewer. This had no impact on the effectiveness of the viewer, but it did get us a bit messy.

The second pinhole viewer we made was much bigger, and much more fun to build! Before we could begin however, we needed to find a long box. We went to our local big box grocery store, and asked the florist if she had any long flower boxes. She had one left, and donated it to our eclipse viewer in exchange for a promise to update her on how it went. This pinhole viewer was very easy to construct, and worked very well to view the eclipse.


Materials Needed:

Long cardboard box
Wide Tape (Masking tape, duct tape, or painters tape)
Box Cutter
Aluminum Foil (cut to a 2.5″ x 2.5″ square)
White Paper (cut to a 3″ x 3″ square)
Invisible Tape


On one of the long ends of your cardboard box, cut a 2″x2″ square on the lower right corner.

On the outside of the box, cover your cut out square with a slightly larger square of aluminum foil. Use your invisible tape to secure your foil. Try to avoid wrinkling the foil.

Use your thumbtack to poke one small hole into the center of your aluminum foil square. The hole should be no larger than the thumbtack.

On the inside of the box, find the opposite end from your aluminum square. Tape your white paper square to the lower right corner of the box, so that it is aligned with your aluminum square on the other end. This will serve as your “projection screen” where you will view the eclipse.

On the outside of the box, right next to the white paper square, you will want to cut a 3″ x 3″ square. This will allow you to view the projection of the eclipse at an angle on your white paper “screen”.

Tape your box shut. Try to tape over any cracks or openings aside from your viewing square. You will want the only light entering your box to be from the pinhole you have created on your aluminum square.

Now that we had our two pinhole viewers, it was time to go check out our eclipse! The instructions we had been given on how to use our eclipse viewers stated that we needed to align our boxes with their own shadow. This worked very well. We could immediately see the projection of the sun on our viewers!

This also led us to immediately see which viewer was going to work better.  The smaller viewer gave a projection that was no bigger than the pinhole itself.

The projection on the long pinhole viewer was much larger. This was an important discovery for us in our experiment. We hypothesized that the length of the box matters greatly in the size of the projected image.

It seems that the longer of a distance the light had to travel, the bigger the projected image. I’ve since read that there are recommendations online to build pinhole viewers that are at least six feet long! In the future, Kat and I will build a longer viewer to see if our hypothesis regarding distance of light travel effecting image size holds true. But for now, we were very happy to have a projected image that was large enough for us to get a good view of our eclipse.

For the rest of the evening, Kat and I stayed outside to watch the progression of the eclipse. This was an excellent opportunity to really see the interactions of light, shadow, and the movements of the Moon, Earth, and Sun. The eclipse was a neighborhood event as well. We invited anyone who was out walking through the neighborhood to watch the eclipse through our viewer. Later, we brought pictures of our eclipse viewing adventures to the florist who donated our box. As the eclipse progressed, we were excited that we were able to clearly see the shadow of the moon as it passed between us and the sun!

This was such a great event to participate in, the memories from this day will be cherished for quite a long time. The experiment we conducted with our boxes also yielded some interesting answers, and even more interesting questions! Does the light expand from the pinhole as the distance between the lens and the “screen” is increased? Can we use our viewer to view any source of light? What would happen if we put other objects in front of that light? Would we get a projected image of that shadow as well? Can we use our pinhole viewer to measure the diameter of large objects such as the sun?

Our pinhole viewer worked very well for viewing the solar eclipse. The best part about the day however, was not just the observation of our moon crossing paths between the Earth and the Sun. It was finding that every answer we came to only led us to more questions, which led us on an investigation to find more answers. With the amount of questions we have come up with, our pinhole viewer will get much more use in the days to come.

Hubble Deep Field View

It was a beautiful reminder that, as human beings who live on this floating rock in space, we have these incredible brains that we can use to ask questions, seek answers, and find the tools to explore our universe. That is the brilliance of scientific thinking and discovery, that we can be awed by, and try to understand those questions of “why?” and “how did that happen?”. The more we learn, the more we become mesmerized by the promise of endless possibilities in our universe.

“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Happy Exploring!

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