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After lifelong wait for eclipse, Colorado Springs brothers ready for big experiment

August 19, 2017 Updated: August 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm
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Ron Bruns (shown in photo) and his twin brother, Don, grew up in Colorado Springs obsessed with space and went on to pursue science careers. Don lives in California, but both will be conducting experiments during the eclipse in Wyoming, one that repeats a 1919 Einstein experiment. have the benefit of current technology for this experiment. Monday, August 14, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Nearly 50 years later, Ron Bruns looks at the grainy picture and can't tell himself from his brother.

"I'm really not sure," he says at his Colorado Springs home, analyzing the Mitchell High School twins of 1968. Ron and Don are standing side by side in their garage, one looking rather quizzically at the other, who is discussing something about their latest scientific project: the telescope they just built.

Jean Bruns offers some help. "That's you," she tells Ron, pointing him out as the one with the glance.

Ron Bruns, left, and twin brother Don pose with the telescope they built in 1968 while attending high school in Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy: Ron Bruns. 

And Ron smiles, recalling the brotherly dynamic that eventually boiled over. His ambition was chemistry, Don's was physics. They knew even before high school that they would go on to careers in those fields. And they knew after high school that they needed to go their separate ways. Ron went to study at Colorado State University; Don at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"In high school, or even junior high, there was competitiveness between us," Ron says. "I didn't ever want people to say, 'You're the dumb one.' So if he got an A, I had to get an A-plus."

The side-by-side experiments ceased. "The telescope was the last thing," recalls Don, who lives in San Diego.

Now, with both recently retired, the twins are tag-teaming again for an event they've been waiting for since they were those boys in the garage.

They used to check out library books that predicted the total solar eclipse of 2017. On Monday, they'll be in Wyoming to witness a phenomenon unlike anything that's happened in 99 years. From Oregon to South Carolina, the moon will blot out the sun in what is being called "the Great American Eclipse" and what experts believe will generate more citizen science than ever. The Bruns brothers will be among that wave.

With telescopes and cameras, they'll record data that they say is so far incomplete. Ron will collect pictures with varying exposures - a set he hopes will definitively show the sky's color change. Don has souped-up a thermometer to detect temperature change - something an average instrument struggles to do in the seconds that the moon's shadow lies on the land.

But most important to Don is his most ambitious idea: In Casper, he plans to repeat the historic experiment that made Einstein famous.

"Don's pretty serious," his brother says. "It's probably not fair to call him an amateur."

Shooting for the stars

Ninety-eight years ago, Sir Arthur Eddington measured "actual" positions of the stars and then went to Africa's west coast to see if those positions changed during a total solar eclipse.

Afterward, newspapers worldwide proclaimed Einstein a genius - the results proved his theory, rather than Isaac Newton's, was right. There was, after all, such a thing as relativity, which states massive objects, such as the moon, move to cause space itself to curve, thus bending light. There was, after all, a cosmic force that created Einstein's idea of "spacetime," whereby objects, such as stars, move, however slightly, with other objects through a dimension unknown to Earthlings.

Ron, left, and twin brother Don together in their recent retirements as scientists. On Monday, the two plan to conduct experiments during the total solar eclipse in Wyoming. Photo courtesy: Ron Bruns 

Einstein was right, Eddington said - the eclipse made starlight bend by .00049 degrees, or 1.75 arcseconds.

But not all physicists were sold. Skeptics remain today, with debate stirring repeated duplications of Eddington's experiment. The University of Texas made an attempt in 1973. Amateur astronomers are believed to have tried in 1979, the last time a total solar eclipse occurred over the continental United States.

But data has yet to end the debate.

Enter Don, who got his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went on to specialize in celestial optics. He has made his intentions known in papers and at talks, most recently this week at Casper's Astronomical Convention. Einstein, he says, has yet to be tested by the full potential of modern technology.

"If I get clear skies in Casper," he says, "I think I can do the best that's ever been done with this experiment."

The forecast heading into the weekend called for favorable conditions, though if that changes, Don is determined to flee to Nebraska or Idaho, other places in the "path of totality."

He has high-end equipment donated by manufacturers he came to trust over his career: a NPS101 telescope and a Microline ML8051 CCD camera. And he has his brother's son, Corey, a mathematician tasked with applying forms of linear algebra and statistics to the experiment, to ensure the margin of error is 2 percent.

The goal: Determine from several dozen images any minuscule shift of starlight. Don will have two minutes and 27 seconds of totality to gather what he hopes will be quintessential data.

He's calibrated his equipment. He's conducted tests in his backyard. Now he's crossing his fingers.

In case of failure, Corey would expect his uncle to be disappointed.

"But the thing that my uncle and my dad share in common is their optimism," he says. "If things don't work out, whether it's the weather or something else, I think he'll look at 2024 for a place where he can try again."

Back to the old days

True. If he must, Don says, he'll head to Texas to observe the country's next total solar eclipse. But the brothers feel they've waited long enough.

Ron thinks back to his teenage self, back to when he'd check the eclipse schedules and see 2017 as some far-off number. "I guess I hadn't realized then that I'd be here, 65 years old," he says, two months removed from his last lab job, testing drinking water for Colorado Springs Utilities. "But here we are. We made it."

In all the time in between, the brothers have decided they're more different than alike. Sure, they share the same interests they had as kids, the interests that led them to make ice cream from liquid nitrogen, to run in fields with model rockets, to enter all the school science fairs, to build that telescope and take the images that Ron keeps still, tucked in a tattered photo album.

Ron has spent his free time in adulthood with his children and, more recently, his grandkids. Without kids of his own, Don has spent more time on his work - once developing a celestial navigation system for the Navy - and his hobby, currently building a small telescope with the capabilities of a million-dollar one.

Don has also developed an interest in travel. He eagerly visited the legendary labs of Galileo Galilei and Newton. Says his brother: "That should indicate his passion."

On Monday, they'll be like the indistinguishable twins again.

"We did a lot of stuff together back in the day," Ron says. "This'll be a good throwback. It'll be fun."

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