Not your everyday eclipse

August 20, 2017

Hundreds of millions of years before the species we identify as “homo-sapiens” came along, the Earth, the Sun and the Moon were already dance partners. Three unique bodies floating in the vastness of the universe, individual in character, inextricable to each other.

The Sun providing the gravitational pull that keeps us from spinning off into oblivion as well as the warmth that gives us life. The rise and fall of our ocean’s tides dependent upon the Moon and the Moon dependent upon the gravity of both Earth and Sun to keep the celestial ballet performing day in , day out, millennium upon millennium.

In the above terms it seems so matter of fact. Sun does this, earth does that, and moon does its part.

Yet ever since man had his first glance upward to the heavens it has been anything but fact. The mystery, the spectacle, the wonderment that the Sun and Moon played upon the earthbound souls below is immeasurable.

Is it any wonder then, that when it comes to our two most visible celestial bodies, that the vast majority of our recorded history is the stuff of mystery, legend and myth? Of Gods and Goddesses descendant from them, of sacrifices made too them?

And to our ancient ancestors nothing was more mysterious than when the dance card called for the Moon to cut in between the Sun and our own terra firma: A total solar eclipse.

While today we live with what seems a daily barrage of one group after another dishing out apocalyptic warning after apocalyptic warning, we ignore them because we know better.

But five thousand years ago when we were just beginning to walk and see and hear and think; we didn’t know anything.

No wonder human history is filled with the fear, legends, and superstitions that tried to explain the quite unnatural and most disturbing event of having the sky go dark in the middle of day.

Imagine, one minute you’re getting a nice even tan on your pecs while stalking that night’s dinner when a shadow appears upon the land and you look up and see a black orb moving in front of the life giving sun.

You watch helplessly as the darkness grows and the light disappears.  (And you do it all without Chinese knockoff eclipse glasses.)  One minute all is fine, the next day has turned to night.

So is it any wonder that our timeline of history has a myriad of myths and superstitions tied to that most mysterious of events that we now take for granted?

According to the website we may have been scattered around the globe but we all had similar explanations:

There’s the frog that eats the Sun in Vietnam, for China it was a dragon, halfway around the world Norse legend blames it on wolves, the Pomo Indians native to the Pacific Northwest attributed the phenomenon to a bear picking a fight and deciding to take a bite out of the big orange fireball, while in Korea it was dogs trying to steal it.

But the history, at least the recent history, isn’t all myth and legend.

On July 28, 1851 a Prussian photographer by the name of Berkowski gave the world its first pictorial record of the Sun’s corona.

It was a solar eclipse of August 16, 1868 that allowed French astronomer Jules Jannssen to confirm the existence of Helium.

And the most significant scientific related to the Sun being gobbled up by whatever of those ancient creatures came on May 29, 1919 when Sir Arthur Eddington used that particular eclipse to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Eddington’s pictures of stars while the eclipse was at totality proved that gravity truly can bend light.

What makes tomorrow’s eclipse so special to us here in the states is the sheer number of people that will be able to see it.  Starting at Salem, Oregon the path cuts diagonally southwest across Middle America before exiting over Charleston, South Carolina.

And while I personally will have to settle for viewing a “partial eclipse” here in Joplin, my spirit will be with all those millions who travelled to witness “in toto” the phenomenon that has been witnessed by humans at one place or another since our very beginning.

You don’t have to be a geek to realize that’s just plain COOL.

God speed fellow sun trekkers, God speed.

PUBLISHER NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the August 20, 2017 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

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