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A History of the Eclipse: The Birth of Science

I traveled to Hawaii from Australia with just a seven kilogram backpack and my celestron skymaster astronomy binoculars that hung loosely and rather heavily around my neck. “Do you have luggage to declare,” the attractive flight attendant wearily muttered expecting that I should have packed more.
She looked up at me suspiciously, her sudden attention less drowsy. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I smiled, though I was thinking rather maliciously that I would know if I packed a suitcase. We paused for a moment and I repeated what I had said earlier to a friend who dropped me off at the airport. “I don’t really wear make-up and I am staying in cheap Airbnb homes that have a washing machine, towels and hairdryer. Just wash, re-wear and move on to the next island.” She was not impressed. I came back home with even less, intentionally taking old summer clothes so that I can throw away most of them when I no longer needed them, my trail shoes in tatters after my hike up to the summit of Mauna Kea and too dirty that to declare them at Australian quarantine would be pointless. In the bin. A couple of gifts, a cliché oversized Hawaiian jumper to wear at home and a box of macadamias covered in dark chocolate all easily fit into the now half empty bag.

I decided that after the rigor of my backpacker-styled travels, I wanted to spend my last day at a resort where I could have a bath, eat a good meal and sit by the pool relaxing and reading a book. Emma by Jane Austen to be precise; Mr. Knightly is my favourite hero, a true gentleman who is both a friend and a lover. But before checking in, I spent the early morning sunrise watching the partial solar eclipse that started before the sun could climb up over the Hawaiian horizon and ending only an hour later. It was a beautiful opportunity to visually experience celestial mechanics and appreciate comparable thoughts about the universe, the existence of time and the very small reality that we live in. Is reality nothing more than our memories since the past no longer exists, neither does the future and the present merely a non-extended component that actually contains nothing save for being a causal link that interacts between the two temporal domains? If we are unable to predict the future save for what our imagination and our desires dictate, both of which are rested on the influence of our social environment, is the future nothing more than an imaginary possibility, that we are just a product of fiction? Or does consciousness enable awareness of our existence and therefore of time, reality only something in our own mind? As one always fond of sunrises, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on how so many people appear to be stuck in a perpetual existential loop, their reality merely a cycle repeating itself and yet go on believing that they are somehow living, sometimes even reaching the end of their lives oblivious of having done absolutely anything at all.

It was not long before a sudden storm arrived and alas I was forced to stay inside the hotel room as the torrential rains beat down and flooded the grass outside to the dismay of the numerous chickens caught in the downpour. When I turned on the television, I began watching a program that I later realised was a Christian show that reported on the solar eclipse and its biblical relationship, a symbol of prophesy and even sometimes of the coming apocalypse. “The sun shall turn to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” This heightened sensitivity in a nation-state entrenched particularly evangelical Christianity was further amplified by the fact that the solar eclipse could only be viewed in the United States, leading many to the idea that it is the beginning of the tribulation. The gloomy voice on the show spoke fearfully about the Jewish calendar that predicts a deadline for the messiah to return before the year 6000, with sullen music playing in the background when he tells us that we are currently in the year 5777. He continues with the Woman of the Apocalypse and the astronomical symbols that she represents, a virgin woman who experiences the pangs of a difficult labour as she is attacked by an evil that she eventually defeats in 1260 days or 42 months when her success finally manifests in the birth of the coming messiah.

Of course, the United States is not the center of the universe and while highly influential in global political affairs, solar eclipses will continue with the next scheduled on the 2nd of July 2019 that will be visible in most of South America, the Pacific and parts of North America. The rarity, however, is in the position of the moon and the shadow that is ultimately produced that blocks the sunlight. Several shadows are formed between the earth and the moon that occurs during both solar and lunar eclipses, the former a result when the moons’ shadow hits the earth and one would need to remember that the sun is 400 times larger than the moon. During a total eclipse this shadow is called an Umbra, the very center of the shadow’ core blocked by the moon as it eclipses the sunlight and as this Umbra ends, the shadow becomes what is known as the 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), as the moon appears smaller it silhouettes the heat of the outer edge of the sun and a ring of fire becomes visible. 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 match and covers the entire sun.

There is no doubt that solar eclipses have piqued the imagination of many and led to some profound scientific discoveries, such as Eddington who was able to prove Einstein’ theory of general relativity when the total solar eclipse of 1919 enabled him to demonstrate gravitational deflection. Aristotle, notwithstanding his vast array of knowledge on a number of subjects, included in his curriculum vitae the title of amateur astronomer, however prior to his astronomical accounts the Ionian philosophers perhaps beginning with Thales of Miletus (c624 BC) who predicted the solar eclipse of the 585 BC 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. 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, 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. The Ionians are thus attributed to developing what we now know as the study of science as these ancient Greeks attempted to ascertain natural and mathematical explanations for such celestial phenomenon.

As the moon crosses the path of the sun, cycles of lunar activity playing a role in tidal changes and other natural and astronomical activities increased the interest for a better understanding of celestial mechanics and geometry. 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 a number of 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 etc &c. Hipparchus (c190 BC) discovered the precession of the equinoxes and atomic theories from Leucippus (c 370 BC) and Democritus (c 490 BC) claimed that the universe was made up from invisible atoms that formed the material world as they interacted with one another. Pythagoras (c 569 BC) also contributed vastly to the subject as a student of Thales but having additionally studied in Egypt and with the Babylonians, it enabled him to develop a number of mathematical theories where he believed that reality is formed through numbers; that is, the material world can be reduced to simple numbers. His Pythagorean Theorem (c2 = a2+b2) where the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the remaining sides of a triangle continues to be the most important theorem in mathematics, however it is also important to note that Pythagoras brought with him the knowledge from the Babylonians that the earth is spherical in shape, visible during a curved shadow on the moon during eclipses.

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. 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). It was not until the Socratic philosophers advanced the subject with a rational approach to natural laws. As democracy become more favorable at this time over aristocracy, open and critical discussions became a valued form of communication that enabled Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to birth a new method of engaging in philosophical and scientific discourse. Plato formed the Academy following his travels and education particularly of the Pythagoreans that introduced the subject of astronomy. His approach was nevertheless abstract in nature as he discussed the triptych relationship between the individual, the state or society, and the universe at large, although he was also attributed to advancing the study mathematics and geometry that ordered and explained celestial motions and the shapes of the material world or elements. As a student and teacher, Aristotle’ work on the subject contributed greatly to the natural sciences as he believed that theoretically it is possible to explain physical phenomena rather than remaining abstract in nature as Plato did.

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. 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 predeccesors, 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. Accordingly, his system also abandoned Earth’ positon as the center of the system and thus changed the centuries-old influence of Aristotle.

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 fo 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. It was not until the Copernican revolution began to challenge the solidified ideas about the universe that provoked an intellectual change in Europe and birthed the renaissance and it was from here that the scientific method was formed when ‘man’ became the object of enquiry thanks to Galileo (c 1564 AD), Kepler (c 1571) and Newton (c 1643 AD), but the method of using experimentation as a science to study natural phenomena was first encouraged by Sir. Francis Bacon (c 1561) that helped end the Aristotelian influence of Western philosophy and astronomy.

When I first heard of the eclipse, I never really thought that this celestial phenomenon could have had such a profound historical influence on the study of science. There is no doubt that eclipses and 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 the United States, along with many other countries, are ruining the earth without the book of revelations.

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