Even an illness couldn’t prevent St. Joseph native James Dire from seeing his first solar eclipse in 1979, starting a decadeslong fascination that will bring him back to his hometown this summer.
“Anytime there was a solar eclipse, I tried to be there if I could get off work and afford to travel to where the solar eclipse was,” Dire said. “I’ve seen solar eclipses in different countries — Germany, Turkey, Iceland, China, Zambia, Aruba, several in the United States.”
This August, Dire, now the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawaii, plans to return to St. Joseph to witness and conduct research during the total solar eclipse. He estimates it will be his 13th solar eclipse.
Dire first became interested in astronomy as a young teen. He purchased a telescope at age 13 with money saved from a paper route. As a freshman in high school, he learned about careers in astronomy from Russell Maag, the director of the Missouri Western State University’s planetarium at the time.
“He got me interested in astronomy as a vocation,” Dire said. “He mentored me and told me what to major in in college. He gave a talk about careers in astronomy to one of my classes, and pretty much mapped out my college career right then.”
Dire graduated from Central High School in 1977 and attended the University of Missouri in Kansas City, Missouri. He triple majored in chemistry, physics and mathematics and was president of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City his senior year.
“They were planning a trip in 1979 for the Feb. 26 eclipse in Manitoba, Canada. I’d never seen a solar eclipse,” Dire said. “Unfortunately, I came down with the flu a few days before we departed and I didn’t make the trip.”
He was able to observe the partial solar eclipse from Kansas City and “took some very poor quality photos of the partial eclipse.”
“That was enough to ‘get the bug,’ so to speak,” Dire said.
After college graduation, Dire joined the Navy and later the Coast Guard where he taught various sciences at the Coast Guard Academy. He earned master’s degrees in physics and meteorology and a doctoral degree in planetary science.
Eventually, after retiring from the military and working at a university in North Carolina, he took his job at the University of Hawaii on the island of Kauai, which is about the size of Buchanan County, Dire said.
He’s taken about a dozen trips to view eclipses, but not all have been successful, Dire said. In 2009, a trip to China for a solar eclipse was thwarted by widespread clouds. Another time, he had to drive 45 minutes south of Buffalo, New York, before the eclipse as clouds rolled in from the north.
“You are always at the mercy of the weather. The way I look at it, if you see the eclipse, great. That’s why you are there,” he said. “If you don’t see the eclipse, you are still having a wonderful vacation somewhere.”
He conducts research experiments during the eclipses and has taken students with him in the past. This summer, colleagues from the University of Hawaii will come with him to St. Joseph.
They record air, ground and water temperatures, barometric pressure, carbon dioxide levels and other markers during the eclipse, Dire said. They also time the totality of the eclipse down to the tenth of a second and record their location down to the nearest foot.
“By timing the eclipse, and knowing where you are, and people doing this along the entire eclipse path, you can calculate a measurement of the sun’s diameter during the eclipse,” he said. “The sun is a star and stars tend to pulsate and their diameter changes with time. It gives us a record of what the sun’s diameter was at that instant.”
With another couple of centuries of research, there may be enough data to predict how the sun’s changing size effects the climate, Dire said.
He also photographs the eclipses, although the images don’t completely portray the real experience, he said. A camera’s exposure prevents all parts of the sun, including the chromosphere and corona, from appearing in one image while the eye can see the different elements at once, Dire said.
“Most people who have never seen one but have seen photographs of it are not too motivated by the photographs,” he said. “The photographs don’t capture what the eye can see. It’s just mesmerizing.”
His hope is that the eclipse in August will help encourage more people to become interested in astronomy. While there are thousands of hobby astronomers across the nation, jobs in astronomy are limited and it’s a “graying field,” Dire said.
“I hope they enjoy it and they get excited about astronomy and science in general,” he said. “We are hoping nationally that the solar eclipse will motivate kids and young adults to want to get interested in astronomy as a hobby.”