Sunday, April 18, 2021

Eclipse Junkie

Nashville, 2017

The first eclipse that really got my attention was of the lunar variety, on August 16, 1989.

Accompanied by friends John, Josephine and Frances, I was visiting a dig at Colha — an ancient Mayan site in the north of Belize, just a shortish taxi-ride from Orange Walk — guests of two contrasting and occasionally antagonistic teams of young archaeologists from separate universities in Texas. 

We gathered in a clearing and duly gawped up at the phenomenon, which felt rather special and local at the time, yet in fact lunar eclipses occur once or twice a year and are visible over all of the darkened part of the planet. I suppose it felt so special because it was so beautiful. 

Suitably moved, we then retired to our hut, which we were sharing with a tarantula. 

Given the distance involved, the Earth's shadow covers the moon with plenty to spare and totality tends to last an hour or more. Our planet's penumbra will next cover the whole surface of the moon on May 26 this year, an effect that will be visible in Guatemala. 

I experienced my first total eclipse of the sun at Prussia Cove near Penzance in 1999. The next one visible in Britain will take place in 2090. 

So, eclipses turn out to be an excuse to travel. And often to places that don't normally feature on one's default, rolling bucket list. This is why I rocked up in Nashville Tennessee in 2017...

Nashville 2017, at c45 degrees

Unlike that Cornish eclipse 18 years previously, the appearance of 'the eye of God' was unmasked by pesky clouds. The moment was awe-inspiring on both occasions nevertheless. 

It comes at the end of a slow build up. That first appearance of a small 'dent' in the sun, followed by the formation of ever thinner crescents and a dimming of the light, leading inexorably to the so-called 360 degree sunset, accompanied by the noises emitted by bemused wildlife. 

The ensuing moment when the moon's shadow covers the whole circumference of the sun still comes as something of a shock. There's a swift and sudden turbulence and then that powerful and immediate sensation that the life force of the cosmos is feeling the irresistible yank of an open plughole in the sky.

This is the instant said to make poets of scientists and vice versa and there's no better way to appreciate what Nietzsche meant when he made his famous observation about gazing into the abyss. 

It is also provides a moment to ponder one of our local neighbourhood of the cosmos's great coincidences: the proportionality of size and distance.

These astronomical incidents of relatively short duration, lunar and solar, can be said to have had long-lasting historical consequences. I would possibly not be where I am now had not Colombus set out west across the pond rather optimistically based on some erroneous calculations made centuries earlier by Ptolemy, using a lunar eclipse. 

Pioneering ancient Greek historian Herodotus recounts one of the supposed feats of pioneering ancient Greek philosopher-scientist Thales of Miletus. 

The Ionians were lined up and ready to do battle with the Lydians and Medes in a conflict which had the definite potential to seriously adjust the course of human civilisation. Then...

The day suddenly turned into night. The Ionians received a prediction of this eclipse from Thales of Miletus, who had determined that this was the year in which an eclipse would occur. The Lydians and the Medes, however, were astonished when they saw the onset of night during the day. They stopped fighting, and both sides became eager to have peace.

There's a prevalent 'urban' myth that the death of Christ on the cross was accompanied by a total eclipse of the sun. 

Total solar eclipses are comparatively rare because they require the intersection of two cycles which provide the conditions: that of the new moon and that of the bi-annual alignment between the sun and the moon.*

The crucifixion, as reported in the Bible, took place at Passover i.e. during the period of a full moon, not a new one. 

It might be worth noting however, that on Friday April 3, 33 AD there was indeed a lunar eclipse. The moon rose 'blood red' that evening according to contemporary reports.

* A third cycle — that of global pandemics — denied me the chance to trek down to Patagonia last year to see the total eclipse in Chile. The next opportunity to witness one somewhere that isn't a frozen wasteland will occur on my birthday in 2024, probably in either northern Mexico or Texas as far as I am concerned. 

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