Next Monday, August 21, a rare solar eclipse will occur. According to Space.com the path of most eclipses either fall across the path of water or unpopulated areas of the earth, however this rarity’s path of totality will stay completely within only the United States of America, the first of its kind since 1776.
As the moon moves between the sun and the earth, the total eclipse will last for two minutes and forty seconds, the partial eclipse much longer, and the darkened sky will cast a seventy mile wide shadow that will extend from Oregon in the north west to South Carolina in the south east. It is estimated that as many as 11 million of the US population live within the swath of the expected shadow, and millions more are expected to converge to witness this once in a lifetime event, the highlight of the summer.
According to NASA, it will begin at 9:06:43 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) and conclude at 11:41:06 am PDT, at Madras, Oregon, with the total eclipse occurring between 10:19:36 am and 10:21:38 am. At the other end of the continent in Columbia, South Carolina, it will commence at 1:13:08 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and finish at 4:06:21 pm EDT, with the totality taking place between 2:41:51 pm and 2:44:21 pm EDT, as the shadow of the moon travels from west to east.
In ancient times, these events evoked both fear and wonder for the populace, who attributed them to the works of the gods. It wasn’t until the 17th century with the birth of newspapers that a significant number of the earth’s population were exposed to the functioning of the solar system, despite astronomical scholars as far back as the 8th century bc having grasped the celestial mechanisms of eclipses.
As some lived in fear of these happenings, others utilized them to their advantage. In 1504, Christopher Columbus shipwrecked off the coast of Jamaica and facing mutiny from a starving crew, used an eclipse to prove to the local Arawak population that he controlled the sky, forcing them to provide food. The African Zulu warrior Shaka used astronomical occurrences to convince his followers that he controlled the sun, thus solidifying his rule.
Scientists have made of use of these phenomena to study the universe. These examinations revealed among other findings, the size of the moon and that the earth is a sphere, over 2,000 years ago. In 1919, Arthur Eddington travelled to the West Coast of Africa for that year’s eclipse during which the sun disappeared for six minutes and fifty-one seconds. He measured the bending of light from the stars as they passed near the sun, and Eddington’s findings, ironically in the dark, confirmed Einstein’s complicated theory of general relativity in which he described gravity as a warping of space-time (Einstein’s word for the fabric of reality which weaves together three-dimensional space with time).
As the eclipse occurs next Monday, astronomers will be taking the opportunity to look at the other stars in the solar system that will be visible during that window of time. According to Earthsky.org, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter will be visible when the sun is blocked. One group of scientists is planning to take the temperature of Mercury which will be visible from thirty seconds before the totality until thirty seconds after it, when the moon totally covers the circle of the sun.
Today, eclipses are no longer feared by the general population, yet some elements will see it as a chance to drive fear and exploit the less informed and the more gullible persons in society by predicting the end of the Earth, and linking events around the globe as signs that the end of time is approaching.
Not all ancient cultures were intimidated by eclipses, in fact some of them viewed them as positive signs. In West Africa, in Togo and Benin, the Batammaliba people considered it as the sun and moon fighting. They encouraged them to stop and reconcile old feuds and forgive. On the other side of the world, the Islanders of the South Pacific and the Native American tribes on the northwest coast shared the belief that a total solar eclipse was a time of intimacy, signalled by the sun and moon disappearing behind the shadow to hide their erotic deeds.
On the 8th April, 2024, another total solar eclipse will cast a shadow across the North American continent, starting in the southwest in Mexico and arching its way across the American land mass in a northeastern direction, and eventually crossing eastern Canada. Conspiracy theorists have already started floating ideas around as to the significance of the X where the paths of the two solar eclipses will cross.
While astronomers, scientists and others gather to witness this phenomenon, the rest of the curious world will pause to get a glimpse by some modern medium. Older folks who have been here for the last passing of Halley’s Comet in 1986 and the start of the millennium will just acknowledge it as another day on planet Earth.