A Solar Eclipse and the Fascination of Astronomy
MAY 10, 1994, was a unique day for some people in North America. It was the occasion of the annular eclipse of the sun by the moon.* For a few brief hours, millions were made aware of the fascinating science of astronomy. But what exactly is an eclipse?
An eclipse occurs when there is a “partial or complete obscuring, relative to a designated observer, of one celestial body by another.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) A solar or a lunar eclipse can occur only when earth, sun, and moon are in a nearly straight line. Whether there is a solar or a lunar eclipse depends on which celestial body is obscured. At times the earth casts its shadow on the moon, causing a lunar eclipse. In May of last year, on the other hand, the moon cast its shadow on the earth, in a narrow band varying from 140 to 190 miles [230-310 km] wide. As the moon gradually passed between the earth and the sun, it almost completely obscured the sun. The path of the shadow went across the Pacific Ocean and then North America from southwest to northeast. The moon seemed to cut slowly in front of the sun. In fact, the shadow traveled across the earth at some 2,000 miles per hour [3,200 kms p h].
All kinds of methods were used to observe the eclipse without damaging the eyes. Some looked through a welder’s eyepiece. Others used a strong filter. Yet others cast the image on paper through a pinhole. One photographer had someone hold up a colander, and as the light passed through the holes, it created multiple images of the eclipse on the ground. Similar effects were noted as the light passed through the leaves of trees. Another method was to pass the light through binoculars to get a double image on a dark surface.
As many as five solar eclipses and up to three lunar eclipses can take place in one year. “At least two solar eclipses of some kind must occur every year,” says The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy. However, each one is visible from varying locations. Therefore anybody in the contiguous United States who missed the 1994 eclipse will have to wait until the year 2012 for another opportunity or travel to Peru, Brazil, or Siberia for an earlier eclipse.*
The Mystery of a Total Eclipse
The total solar eclipse, when the moon completely obscures the sun, caused fear and panic in past centuries. Why is that? The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy notes: “The mystery of a total eclipse is enhanced because the uninitiated have no warning of the impending spectacle as the Moon cannot be seen approaching the Sun.” That spectacle includes these features: “The sky becomes darker, often with an eerie greenish tinge which is quite indescribable and quite unlike the darkening caused by clouds. . . . During the last few seconds of the partial phase light fails rapidly, it becomes noticeably cooler, birds settle down to roost, some flower petals close, and the wind tends to drop. . . . Darkness descends on the countryside.”
In his book The Story of Eclipses, George Chambers reports on “one of the most celebrated eclipses of mediæval times . . . , visible as a total eclipse in Scotland,” that took place August 2, 1133. William of Malmesbury wrote: “The Sun on that day at the 6th hour shrouded his glorious face, . . . in hideous darkness, agitating the hearts of men by an eclipse.” The ancient Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said that “men were greatly wonder-stricken and affrighted.”
Chambers also recorded the graphic account of an eclipse of the moon that occurred on September 2, 1830, reported by two travelers in Africa: “When the Moon became gradually obscured, fear overcame every one. As the eclipse increased they became more terrified. All ran in great distress to inform their sovereign of the circumstance, for there was not a single cloud to cause so deep a shadow, and they could not comprehend the nature or meaning of an eclipse.”
In more recent times, the study of astronomy has allayed mankind’s fears about a solar eclipse—we know that the sun will reappear.
How the Jesuits Used a Solar Eclipse
Back in 1629, Jesuit missionaries in China were able to gain favor with the emperor by means of a solar eclipse. How did they do it?
The Jesuits had noticed that “the Chinese lunar calendar was in error, as it had been for centuries. The Imperial Astronomers had repeatedly erred in predicting the eclipse of the sun . . . The great opportunity for the Jesuits came when an eclipse was expected on the morning of June 21, 1629. The Imperial Astronomers predicted that the eclipse would occur at 10:30 and would last for two hours. The Jesuits forecast that the eclipse would not come until 11:30 and would last only two minutes.” What happened?
“On the crucial day, as 10:30 came and went the sun shone in full brilliance. The Imperial Astronomers were wrong, but were the Jesuits right? Then, just at 11:30, the eclipse began and lasted for a brief two minutes, as the Jesuits had predicted. Their place in the Emperor’s confidence was now secure.”—The Discoverers, by Daniel J. Boorstin.
Astronomy in the Bible
Astronomical information is even provided in the Bible. Several constellations are mentioned in the book of Job. Furthermore, Jehovah invited his servants to examine the heavens, not for the study of astrology or other false worship, but to appreciate the grandeur of his creations. Isaiah was inspired to write: “Raise your eyes high up and see. Who has created these things? It is the One who is bringing forth the army of them even by number, all of whom he calls even by name. Due to the abundance of dynamic energy, he also being vigorous in power, not one of them is missing.”—Isaiah 40:26.
Job acknowledged the supremacy of the Creator when he said of him: “He is . . . making the Ash constellation [possibly Ursa Major, or Great Bear], the Kesil constellation [possibly Orion, or celestial hunter], and the Kimah constellation [possibly the Pleiades cluster in the Taurus, or Bull, constellation] and the interior rooms of the South [understood to mean the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere].”—Job 9:7-9.
How fascinating the study of astronomy is going to be when Jehovah grants everlasting life to obedient mankind! Then the enigmas of the universe will be revealed progressively as we come to understand God’s purposes in relation to the vast universe. Thus, we will be able to echo David’s words with even more feeling: “When I see your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have prepared, what is mortal man that you keep him in mind, and the son of earthling man that you take care of him?”—Psalm 8:3, 4.
The word “eclipse” is from the Greek eʹklei·psis, which derives from e·kleiʹpo, which means “fail to appear.”—The Concise Oxford Dictionary.
There was a total eclipse of the sun November 3, 1994, that was visible across parts of South America.
[Picture Credit Line on page 12]
Photo courtesy of NASA/Finley-Holiday Film Corporation