June 2, 2020

Ghosts of Eclipses Past

Trouvelot’s classic view of the 1878 eclipse over Wyoming.

Image in the Public Domain.

Are you ready?

There’s a great line from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the Three Stages of Sophistication which every civilization must pass: “1. How can we eat? 2. Why do we eat? And 3. Where shall we do lunch?”

This axiom also applies to the way we view and approach nature, including total solar eclipses.

Imagine you’re an average everyday citizen of human society, thousands of years ago. You live a typical, hard scrabble existence, consisting of three basic  commandments: don’t die today, find and consume more calories than you burn doing it, and oh, try to leave some offspring along the way.

And suddenly, in the midst of that daily routine of existence, the daytime sky goes dark.

What would you make of it?

Now, a total solar eclipse occurs, on average, over the same geographic locale once every 375 years. Maybe you’d heard stories of someone who knew someone from far away who had witnessed such a strange spectacle, or perhaps, you had heard tales of darkness at midday occurring long ago. Maybe such tales had merged into legends along with giants and unicorns and things old timers seemed to have just kicking around, but aren’t part of your everyday life today…

It always amazes us that ancient civilizations figured out the “how” in the cycle of eclipses. Lunar eclipses were probably key, as they are much more frequent, and you just have to be on the right hemisphere of the Earth to see one. Annular solar eclipses, for example, are much more subtle, unless the ring of fire Sun is filtered by clouds, fog or low to the horizon. I wonder how many court astrologers predicted a total solar eclipse which was actually annular, and were beheaded as a result.

With science and enlightenment came the ability to study and understand eclipses, and the “why” era was soon underway. By the mid-18th century, we’d harnessed the power of a total solar eclipse to do real science using it to discover everything from the element helium (which derives its name from the Greek word for Sun, helios) to revealing sungrazing comets hidden from view.

The upcoming Great American Eclipse spanning the contiguous United States may well be the most well-documented and recorded eclipse in history. And while there is still some science to be had, total solar eclipses have passed more into the realm of a purely aesthetic phenomena. We have reached the pinnacle of sophistication in eclipse viewing, no longer fearing its portent or unveiling its secrets, but instead hopping aboard our Learjet and asking ourselves, “Where shall we greet totality?”

Of course, it’s a grand thing, to see so many folks interested in space and astronomy. We’ll be at the PARI radio observatory in North Carolina, for a glorious 107 seconds of totality the afternoon of August 21st. Do make the effort to get to the path of totality on August 21st for the spectacle of a lifetime. Unless, of course, you’re actually a cloud, in which case, you’re not invited to the party…

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