The Hamilton Spectator

Why we are fascinated by solar eclipses


In its dramatic portent, the term “path of totality” is a brilliant expression, a Hollywood-worthy augury of the epic and extreme.

The phrase describes the band of territory across Canada, the United States and Mexico that will be darkened Monday by the total solar eclipse in which the moon passes between the sun and Earth. The moon, 400 times smaller than the sun, can manage this trick because the sun is 400 times farther away from Earth.

As a result, from our chunk of terra firma, the two bodies appear to be the same size in the sky, the one briefly blotting out the other.

The path of totality is a 200-kilometre wide strip that for this eclipse, is expected to cover Niagara Falls (one of the best places on the continent for viewing) and the Hamilton area shortly after 3 p.m. on Monday and last up to several minutes.

If we have been captivated by the eclipse, even in an era when we know exactly what is happening, imagine how such natural phenomenon would have rattled our forebears of the ancient world.

In antiquity, there were no towering cityscapes to block the view, no artificial light to obscure it. The sky remained the dominating characteri­stic of the world.

There was, moreover, no cable news to provide explanatio­n and generate weeks of anticipati­on. Suddenly, terribly, the two celestial bodies that governed the existence of humankind would go dark. The people of those times would have been reasonable to conclude a cataclysm was at hand.

We have been a stargazing species since our earliest days. For thousands of years, the sun and the moon have been studied. Historians say the Babylonian­s were obsessed, 4,000 years ago, with the celestial sphere, including eclipses. Happily, they recorded their observatio­ns on clay tablets that were discovered in archeologi­cal digs in the 19th century.

Humans have long seen omens in particular alignments of the heavens and sensed how tides, moods, cycles were governed by them. Christians have viewed eclipses as a herald of the second coming of Christ. Numerous societies saw them as evidence of God’s wrath and imminent punishment. Some imagined dragons or demons devouring the sun.

Whatever the interpreta­tion, the skies and their celestial bodies have perenniall­y intrigued, inspired and, on occasion, terrified humanity. A subject of song, dance, poetry and literature, they deliver despair and hope in the primal contrast of darkness and light, storm and tranquilit­y, glitter and gathering gloom.

We have come a long way since the days of the Babylonian­s, yet eclipses still hold the power to enthrall and intrigue. Just witness the tens of thousands of people, millions perhaps, who will travel long and far Monday to put themselves in the path of totality where day will turn to night and stars will be visible in the afternoon sky. Niagara expects such an influx of eclipse-gazers that it has pre-emptively declared a state of emergency.

These celestial events remain a source of focus for scientists, too. NASA says it will launch sounding rockets to study how the upper atmosphere is affected as sunlight dims over the planet. Researcher­s will also be closely monitoring the reaction of animals, keen to see if the sudden dark triggers behaviours of the night. The intersecti­on of eclipse and discovery is hardly new. In 1919, a total solar eclipse reportedly provided evidence for Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, first described three years earlier.

Perhaps there is a hopeful omen in the lore of eclipses. In his Histories, the great Greek historian Herodotus told of how the Lydians and the Medes had waged war for five years in the 5th or 6th century B.C. Combat once again flared and “just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. When the combatants observed the change, they “ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.”

It would be splendid if this latest eclipse caused history to repeat itself.

These celestial events remain a source of focus for scientists, too. Researcher­s will be closely monitoring the reaction of animals, keen to see if the sudden dark triggers behaviours of the night

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