A History of the Eclipse: The Birth of Science

A solar eclipse is a clear demonstration of celestial mechanics as the position of the moon and the sun temporarily shadows the sunlight on earth, and indeed for centuries has led to a number of mythologies that attempt to explain the geometry of the unknown universe and where civilisations and formidable historical figures came to greatly influence the study of science and astronomy as we know of it today. The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Chinese were so entrenched in these myths that they formed methodical processes aimed at calculating and predicting occurrences and did so with great accuracy that led to the development of the necessary instruments to aid in their observational techniques. For instance, the Babylonians believed that the solar eclipse could potentially be a bad omen that would predict the death of the King and this fear evoked constant study that soon thereafter established the 223 month Saros cycle of eclipses, something that we still use today. Have eclipses prompted astronomers and philosophers to theorise celestial geometry and planetary motion that ultimately enhanced scientific tools prior to the invention of the telescope by Hans Lippershey in 1608 and led to what is known as science?

Several shadows are formed between the earth and the moon that occurs during both lunar and solar eclipses, the latter a result when the moons’ shadow hits the earth, though the sun is four hundred times larger than the moon. During a total solar eclipse, this shadow is called an Umbra,[1] whereby the very center of the shadow’ core is blocked by the moon as it eclipses the sunlight and as this ends, the shadow becomes an Antumbra that forms the lighter section of this shadow. During an annular solar eclipse, when the light source contains a larger diameter due to the distance of the moon during an Apogee (when the moon is at its farthest distance on the elliptical from the earth), the moon appears smaller and thus silhouettes the heat of the outer edge of the sun, forming a visible ‘ring of fire’.[2] When the moon’ distance from the earth is at a Perigree and therefore at its closest range, it enables a total eclipse as the diameter roughly matches and covers the entire sun.[3] It is estimated that a total solar eclipse in a location only occurs once every several hundred years and being an exceedingly rare phenomenon and difficult to predict only added to the mysteries of the heavens.[4]

Prior to the use of the telescope, astronomers recorded their observations using a number of tools, once such being the Armillary Sphere or the Spherical Astrolabe that was used both as a teaching tool and to aid observations. Aristotle, notwithstanding his vast array of knowledge on a number of subjects, included in his curriculum vitae the title of amateur astronomer and authored On the Heavens that observed the material nature of the cosmos through concentric celestial spheres. For Aristotle, the world is both celestial and terrestrial, with the latter sphere composed of changing and chaotic elements of fire, water, earth and air that is surrounded within a perfect and unchanging celestial universe. His theories of motion and cosmology dominated the subject for centuries and remained similar to that of Eudoxus (c 337 BC) who stated that with the earth being the center of the universe, rotating spheres on individual axis moved at various speeds and angles around the earth.[5] As the earth is spherical in shape, it remains stationary as the sun, moon and planets rotated around the earth and the motions of these spheres carried all celestial activity including the fixed stars and ecliptic rotations. As Aristotle’ work survived and being highly influential unlike many of his predecessors, his cosmological views remained dominant until Ptolemy wrote Almagest, a voluminous encyclopedia of astronomy that summarised all knowledge of astronomy available at the time. He also had his own version of a planetary system that was based on the notion of spheres but instead adopted a preference for circular eccentricity or a circular shape of the ellipse (equant) that rotates at various speeds.[6] Accordingly, his system also abandoned Earth’ positon as the center of the system and thus changed the centuries-old influence of Aristotle.

However, prior to Aristotle’ astronomical accounts the Ionian philosophers perhaps beginning with Thales of Miletus (c624 BC) who is said to have predicted the solar eclipse of the 585 BC[7] became highly influential in the development of natural philosophy. According to Herodotus, this solar eclipse had such a powerful influence that the war between the Lydians and the Medes came to an end when they viewed the eclipse as a sign and a warning from the gods.[8] While the Egyptians and Babylonians had already formed extensive observations of the night sky, the latter in particular employing the Saros that determines periodicity of eclipses governed by a repetitive cycle spanning 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours and enabled them with the skill to predict eclipses,[9] they were restricted by the superstitions and myths formed in their pagan rituals that viewed these eclipses as bad omens, particularly for the ruling class. The Greek philosophers were empowered with more intellectual maneuverability that established a better scientific approach to astronomy that was instead viewed to be governed by natural laws; what made up the universe was material rather than supernatural and the Armillary Sphere exemplified this as a teaching tool. Thales studied geometry in Egypt and this mathematical knowledge was brought back to Greece as he soon thereafter became credited to developing a number of advancements in the subject that attempted to explain unknown astronomical concepts. The earth, for instance, was a large mass floating on water and earthquakes were evidence of oceanic turbulence. Thales stated that the material that formed the universe was water (our dark matter) and is the fundamental element that all the material world. Cosmological theories continued with his followers such as Anaximander and Anaximenes that questioned the origin of the universe. Anaximenes took it one step further, purporting that the element that forms water – air – is the building block of all material things and water is merely the compressed form of this element.

Anaximander was far more interesting as he purported that the universe was formed by a chaos of infinite opposites (such as hot and cold) and his cosmological model of the universe was intriguing to say the least, suggesting a cylindrical earth surrounded by wheels of fire from the sun that we are able to see through holes that rotate past us. This period is clearly marked a great many discussions on the physics of the universe that attempted to explain the appearances of celestial objects, when things are static or dynamic, constant or eternal. Hipparchus (c190 BC) discovered the precession of the equinoxes by using the solar eclipse by estimating the distance of the moon from the earth.[10] The Armillary Sphere were devices that enabled a demonstration of the rings that represented the celestial spheres and attached to them were fixed globes set to an elliptical axis and were “sometimes mounted on handles, but often were set like globes into cradles so that the sphere could be adjusted to represent the heavens as seen from any latitude.”[11] A number of spheres continued to be developed and adjusted from Ptolemy to Copernicus as an instrument to explain and observe equatorial coordinates and through Aristotle moved into the Islamic world.

The cosmological and astronomical theories during this period nevertheless contained the practice of supernatural and mystical influences that viewed the heavens as practical tools for predicting events throughout the passage of time. While methods of observations and the tools that strengthened how they recorded data steadily advanced, the observations continued to be shrouded by such celestial mysteries that evoked a sense of fear and awe. In China, for instance, the Emperor had control of the heavens and therefore predicting eclipses and other activities (lifa) along with the study of astronomical phenomena (tianwen) played a powerful role in his position as supreme leader.[12] Without an orderly understanding of astronomical event, it was viewed as a bad omen and a sign of problems ahead. China is attributed as having the first record of a solar eclipse (c. 2134 BC).[13] Like the ancient Hellenistic astronomers, China also used their own version of an ancillary sphere and took it even one step further by developing a mechanically powered globe using a sophisticated haudralic system during the Han Dynasty.[14] However, Shen Kuo (c1095) who is said to have developed the magnetic-needle compass did so following his observations of planetary motions and by using the models of solar eclipses was able to verify that celestial objects were in fact round.[15]

While such celestial activity was during the time of the Egyptians and Babylonians shrouded with pagan mysticism, astronomy soon thereafter through Saint Thomas Aquinas enabled the world to view Aristotelian cosmology through a Christian lens, one clearly visible when Copernicus’ model that the earth revolves around the sun was met with denunciation by the dominant Catholic influences of the time. Scholastic astronomy was introduced to medieval Europe from the Islamic Golden Age following the decline of the Roman Empire and the new Ottoman Empire steadily controlling the Middle East and North Africa attained access to the library of Alexandria and thus the work of the ancient Greeks, translating them into Arabic and improving a number of astronomical models that advanced an understanding of the elliptical movements of planets and the moon. Translations of the Arabic to Latin enabled Aristotelian and all scientific writing to move into Europe when the Christians conquered the Moors in Spain and Aquinas successfully incorporated Aristotelian philosophy into Christendom. Thinkers such as Casanus began to combine theological influences to cosmological theories, purporting that the universe is infinite and that there was no specific location of space, instead space was everywhere. The subject of eclipses developed intense interest during the Islamic Golden Age as Islam required a sophisticated approach to prayer that required the correct direction toward Mecca during important periods of sunrise and sunset together with the calendrical system of the moon that inevitably enhanced the study and the equipment thereof including sundials and quadrants.[16] However, it is the Equatorium that was developed by Ibn al-Samh and al-Zarqali and translated in Castille under the patronage of King Alfonso X[17] in the book Libros Del Saber De Astronomia (Books of the knowledge of astronomy)[18] that assisted with astronomical calculations.

It is clear that studies of the solar eclipse prior to the development of the telescope have led to a great many developments in the study of astronomy and science as a whole. As the ancient Hellenistic community of philosophers approached the subject with more freedom of religious constraint, natural philosophy contributed vastly to the subject that even included mathematical advancements, such as the Pythagorean Theorem where the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the remaining sides of a triangle. Pythagoras himself believed that reality is formed through numbers or that the material world can be reduced to simple numbers and by bringing with him the knowledge from the Babylonians that the earth is spherical in shape, visible during a curved shadow on the moon during eclipses, changed the study of astronomy and ultimately influenced the development of the study of science as we know today.

When I first heard of the eclipse in the United States in 2017 as I was in Hawaii, I never really thought that this celestial phenomenon could have had such a profound historical influence on the study of science. While the subject evoked many mythologies, mythologies even present today with theories of biblical Armageddon that the eclipse has stirred, there is no doubt that the motion of the moon around the earth, the sun and planetary models that attempted to explain geometric orbits from spheres to water, mathematical to theological, changed the face of history and enabled the beginning of the study of western science. While the origin of the universe continues to remain impossible to answer – I myself am controversially of the opinion that the origin of the universe is in God – the material world that we experience nevertheless can be scientifically explained without it being shrouded by theological superstition and bad omens. I think we can use science to quite easily predict that if Armageddon were coming, it is likely because of the United States along with many other countries that are ruining the earth without needing the book of revelations to tell us that.


[1] Martin Mobberley, Total Solar Eclipses and How to Observe Them, Springer Science & Business Media (2007) 38
[2] Nicholas Nigro, Knack Night Sky: Decoding the Solar System, from Constellations to Black Holes, Rowman & Littlefield (2010) 206
[3] Op. Cit., Mobberley, 39
[4] Michael Borgia, Human Vision and The Night Sky: How to Improve Your Observing Skills, Springer Science & Business Media (2006) 112. It is good to note that total solar eclipses occur regularly (every 18 months) but in one given location will span over 300 years.
[5] Richard Jones, The Medieval Natural World, Routledge (2013) 30
[6] Michael Zeilik, Astronomy: The Evolving Universe, Cambridge University Press (2002) 34
[7] Lisa Rezende, Chronology of Science, Infobase Publishing (2006) 21
[8] William Hales, Chronology and Geography, C.J.G. & F. Rivington, (1830) 71
[9] https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEsaros/SEsaros.html
[10] Lloyd Motz and Jefferson Hane Weaver, The Story of Astronomy, Springer (2013) 45
[11] John Lankford, History of Astronomy: An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis (1997) 34
[12] Frances Wood, Great Books of China (2017) in Almanac or Tongshu (c 1000 – c 600 BCE)
[13] Aaron Millar, The 50 Greatest Wonders of the World, Icon Books (2016)
[14] Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth, Cambridge University Press (1959) 458
[15] Ancient China’s Technology and Science: Compiled by the Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Foreign Languages Press (1983) 153
[16] Ludwig W. Adamec, Historical Dictionary of Islam, Rowman & Littlefield (2016) 393
[17] Roshdi Rashed, Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Routledge (2002) 256
[18] Belén Bistué, Collaborative Translation and Multi-Version Texts in Early Modern Europe, Routledge (2016) 65

Dante: Love That Moves The Sun And Other Stars

What is love when no one understands you, when no one can see you for who you are? Esse Est Percipi, ‘To be is to be perceived’ as said by G. Berkeley.

Is the sadness you feel real when no one is there to comfort you, when you are alone and lying in bed thinking about how those that have hurt you are completely oblivious to such an experience, perhaps on the contrary where they believe that no wrongdoing exists at all? What happens when you speak of the wrongdoing and they deny you, perhaps reverse this and claim that you are the one with the problem, competing with you to prove they were right and settle the anxiety they feel for their own falsehoods? Playing games to make themselves believe that they are somehow better than you. Is this why when faced with facts they are suddenly stirred with an emotive viciousness that increases as though the louder and more assertive they are, the more right they become and the more people they gather to agree with them, the more likely you will be silenced? And is it the reason why we appreciate the truth with greater clarity when it is uttered through lies, fictitious stories and parables that explain moral symbols that become the hermeneutic source for our subjective capacity to interpret facts without confronting the harsh and abrupt reality of our own failures?

I spent my childhood wishing for a friend that never arrived and my tenderness and love remained protected by the isolation I endured as I hid away from those contemptible enough to enjoy tricking and humiliating me, laughing at my vulnerability and frightening me. The pain even greater when I hoped for kindness that I never received, as though I were manoeuvring through a hellish purgatory, wandering and wondering if there is anyone out there that can genuinely love. For Dante, this is symbolic of what we experience when we become conscious of love and his Divine Comedy is a poetic allegory that divides such an existential reality into what becomes the three stages of our soul’s journey towards God. The Inferno is that moment of consciousness, where one awakens to a reality where our actions and failures or sins become transparent as well as our aloneness on this dark journey towards hell. As we uncover our own self-deception, we see the treachery in others and the lies and games of those within our environment who pretend to goodness when they only seek the indulgences of this false reality. It is only when one admits to this fraudulence and seeks repentance, to apologise for our own misconduct and become morally conscious that enables an escape from hell and ascend toward Purgatorio, the mountain on which we begin to climb toward heaven in order to see the difference between what is genuine or pure and what is false. The desire to reach the summit is the motivation that compels us to become honest with ourselves and though lengthy the process and arduous the climb, we purge the soul of sin by attempting to embody true love. Dante means to show that if one would ever find this heavenly peace, it is only possible through love. To put it succinctly, one begins this divine experience when they genuinely fall in love.

My will and my desire were both revolved,
As is a wheel in even motion driven
By Love,
Which moves the sun and other stars.

Dante’ lifelong love was Beatrice and highlighted in his publications including La Vita Nuova that attempts to exemplify the provincial methods of courtly love in medieval Italy. Her presence in the Divine Comedy indicate her position in the symbolic experience of Dante as he traverses through these realms, initially falling into limbo as she prayed for Dante to be saved by Virgil – who embodies a person that is wise with virtuous attributes – during his decent into the Inferno. It is almost like she desired genuine love that Dante was not yet capable of giving and prayed that he would one day come to her as one wise and authentic. His experience in Purgatorio is a necessary step that he needs to make as he reaches out to Paradiso where Beatrice is then able to guide him toward the attainment of virtuous attributes that could make a man wise and constant. Dante believes that this love is divine and one must love another through God where she becomes the symbol that enables him to reach Paradiso as she embodies the desire for him to become a better man. Thus his admiration is not aroused by the physical beauty that she possessed, where such considerations merely compel a man to turn away from God, but for who she is and that led to the awakening and the transparency of his own soul and improved the clarity of his purpose.

She – as the sun who first in love shone warm
Into my heart – had now, by proof and counter proof,
disclosed to me the lovely face of truth.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 during the late Middle Ages and wrote the epic masterpiece The Divine Comedy in 1321. Love that moves the sun and other stars is reference to a number of cantos (III – XXXIII) in Paradisio. Dante epitomises the work itself, his biography is found within the cantos as it provides us with the magnificence of his imaginative scope and allusions to his own thoughts and experiences. Highlighting the influence of Beatrice in particular, it also includes figures such as Jesus and St. John along with philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas that helped solidify his faith in God. His family was embroiled in the politics of the time; clashes between rival factions the Ghibellines who were defeated by the Guelphs for which he was a member, soon thereafter found those loyalties broken when Dante was exiled following a division between the Guelphs (Black and White) that led him to be banished for supposed corruption. The treachery he experienced became a part of the Inferno hell that left him disillusioned for the deception and violence he witnessed, his exile the many years that it took through Purgatorio to learn the wisdom to ascertain the difference between right and wrong, all the while Beatrice stood as a beacon or “holy lamp” that helped light his way to the good life. Her death in 1290 was met with pangs of anguish that it almost appears that her place in Paradiso is his lifelong yearning to be with her in what would become his own paradise. Beatrice Portinari is said to have been a woman of virtue and grace, though he briefly met her in advance of his marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, his later encounter with her clearly indicated that he fell in love and she became the muse for his love ballads, none of which mention his wife.

Dante finds himself travelling through a number of spheres in heaven, represented by astronomical or planetary symbols that allude to a series of virtues. Cantos III, for instance, embarks on a lunar journey to the moon when he confesses of his failures and is born again through the love for Beatrice. She became his saviour, a child that she could help gain steady ground about how to live in God’s love or be attuned to what correctly wills or motivates man to reflect with accuracy. A man can find salvation through a virtuous woman; when being pulled by men set on greater harm then good, she struck him with the splendours of the decency that she attached to her heart. Canto X or the Sphere of the Sun alludes to the light of God, to witness the universe and the power therewith in creation and the universe itself can eclipse the worldly attributes for a moment as Dante gives thanks to the monumental reality of the world above.

And there, entranced, begin to view the skill
The Master demonstrates. Within Himself,
He loves it so, His looking never leaves.
Look! Where those orbits meet, there branches off
The slanting circles that the planets ride
To feed and fill the world that calls on them.

A number of figures enter into the celebration of this epiphany, including King Solomon, St. Thomas Aquinas and Boethius that allude to their place in assisting one to reach this venerable awakening. They are rejoicing for Dante finally becoming aware of the fallaciousness of the world below him and where his soul deep within him begin to burn from the joy of abandoning all the lies that tied him to that false reality. It is followed in Cantos XI with, “Those idiotic strivings of the human mind!” The toil of worldly affairs including politics and law, where Dante finally finds peace in his should within the arms of Beatrice and being up high in the heavenly spheres where his soul rests in the light of truth. Here, Dante speaks of St. Francis who takes a wife and loves her despite the objections of his father and others, that his dedication to love a loyal and courageous woman though many feared her that represents the potential poverty of a life lived in the love for God and that one may be at risk of losing family and friends in the commitment to what is good. But Beatrice remains the defining guide, whereby in Cantos XIV she shows Dante that there is yet more truth that he is required to find within him, the eternal nature of this experience and whether one will remain committed in their love for God. Beatrice grows and becomes more beautiful to Dante when she chooses to join the light, perhaps representative of the longevity and growth of the beauty of love in a virtuous woman that renders the clarity of the experience eternal.

And so my eyes, regaining their strength,
Lifted once more. I saw myself alone,
Borne with my lady to a higher good.
Seeing the flares of laughter in that star,
Which seemed now far more fiery than before,
I knew full well that I’d been lifted higher.

We begin to see through the light of God all that is wonderful and so what we ‘see’ or understand continuously increases as we rise higher through the celestial planes. In Cantos XVII, Dante is still troubled and Beatrice continues to help him shed light on his feelings by prompting a discussion with Cacciaguida about the future and the difficulties he may face as was forewarned by Virgil. Contingency is met with the potential uncertainty for the future and that while one may experience hardships, in faith one will also experience events that are wonderful. It is to be courageous to face the contingency. When they reach Cantos XXIII or the Sphere of the Fixed Stars (Eighth Heaven), Beatrice is compared to a mother bird waiting for the sun, the light of Christ and enraptures all who experience this power to expand their thoughts beyond the horizon. The garden, for which Beatrice instructs Dante to look upon, contains a rose that is the Word of God and he can see Mary in the rose, the “Queen of Heaven” (Regina Coeli). By Cantos XXVII, Dante – despite being further from the earth – can now see the details within it with greater clarity, his mind now free from the false burdens that blinded him from seeing such details, the sins for which Beatrice speaks of when a man misuses his free will. He returns to earth in Cantos XXX, the light of dawn slowly drowning the light of the stars until he turns to see the beauty of Beatrice once more and both reached the Paradiso in one another, transcending the material world through love and wisdom.

As she then was – a guide in word and deed,
Her work all done – she spoke again: ‘We’ve left
The greatest of material spheres, rising
To light, pure light of intellect, all love,
The love of good in truth, all happiness,
A happiness transcending every rapture.

The final Cantos XXXIII, Bernard of Clairvaux praises the love of Mary as the foundation for the rose or the Word of God who helped illuminate Dante with the truth and the happiness that followed. Indeed, as Beatrice returns to her place in the rose, which is symbolic of the Queen and Virgin Mother, epitomises that she has satisfied her love for Dante as he gazes into the light of the Empyrean. He now understands God and what is right and good on earth.

As one who has now ascended to Paradiso, the bliss and happiness of finding the Divine love and waiting to meet someone genuine on this journey of mine, I believe as Dante does that love can only be real when two people experience this transcendence from the material realm, from the hellish Inferno where one becomes aware of the reality where there exists corruption, lies, and all things vicious. By seeking the divine love of God, one can redeem themselves and when guided by love, mirror our moral position to become virtuous and wise. Only then can one return to ‘earth’ and see the world for what it genuinely is. The Divine Comedy remains a powerful poetic bildungsroman, an epic of gigantic proportions that remains the heart of medieval Italy and the Italian language itself.