Humans have been observing the sky – especially the night sky – for thousands of years. The sky was always the same, stars rising and setting in their season. The regular movements of the stars and the phases of the Moon made our first calendar. The sky was also this gigantic canvas on which the dots were connected to form patterns. Our brains love to see familiar shapes in random things, we see animals in the clouds and we saw animals in the stars.
Over time we drew heroes, creatures from mythology, and occasionally everyday objects in the sky, and then we used them in telling stories about these heroes and legends. Before artificial lights, the sky was a part of everyone’s experience, and we knew the sky well. Many of us still know one or more of the stories in the stars. The regular cycles in the heavens were comforting next to the chaos of life on Earth.
Until the Sun went out in the middle of the day.
Imagine what it would be like if we had no idea a solar eclipse was happening. At some point we’d wonder why the light looked strange – but otherwise it is still a bright sunny day. If you don’t know anything is going on, 86% of the Sun can be covered and you might not notice – this a bare ten minutes before totality! And since we know not to look at the Sun, we’d just glance up – no, no cloud there – and all of a sudden we are sliding into a darkness coming at us across the landscape, and when we do look back at the Sun it has become a thin crescent breaking into beads of light and then gone! Panic, doom, screams until just minutes later the Sun reappears in bright flash of light that makes us look away, and daylight returns.
That makes for a great story! Did some great beast just attempt to eat the Sun? Before written language and widespread travel, though, the story might have died out before the next time a solar eclipse visited the same spot. The average is nearly 400 years between eclipses. Once we had written language and could compare notes, though, this seemingly random event was seen as periodic. Now we wanted to be able to predict solar eclipses!
The story then turns to a story of science. Of the motions in the sky, the dance of the Earth, Moon and Sun. The Greeks and others used a mathematical story called geometry to reckon the size of the Earth, the possible distance to the Moon – and the reason why this dance would occasionally bring darkness in the middle of the day. Newton wrote the next chapter in the story, with the law of gravity as the main actor, directing the dance of the planets around the Sun.
Two hundred and thirty years later a clerk in a patent office wondered what the story of the beam of light traveling across space would be, and brought gravity back together with geometry. When the news story broke about how scientists observing a total solar eclipse had seen the starlight bend as Einstein had predicted, he became the star of relativity, a radically new way of looking at the universe.
The story of science, of how the universe works and our place in it is written with both imagination and observation. How we describe the universe has to mesh with the facts and measurements that we gather, with predictions made and verified. Solar eclipses have fired our imagination and our desire to understand the cosmos from the earliest humans to the modern era.
We’ll each have our own story on eclipse day. Even though we know when and where and how an eclipse happens, waaay back in the brain is the certain knowledge that the Sun does NOT go out in the middle of the day! To witness such an event is a wonder. Everyone will have a unique reaction. What will your eclipse story be? I hope you will record your unique experience as we all stand under the shadow of the Moon and watch the Sun disappear in the middle of the day!