Few of us are lucky enough to see an unobstructed total solar eclipse once in a lifetime. I had that privilege on Feb. 26, 1979, as I parked along a highway south of Goldendale, Wash.
If my travel happens as planned — reservations made and paid for, check! — and the weather cooperates, I’ll be one of the doubly lucky ones, seeing my second such eclipse, later this month in Rexburg, Idaho.
I don’t have the words to describe the experience of viewing an eclipse, and that’s not just because the last eclipse in the continental U.S. happened a long time ago. Suffice it to say that I’ve been looking forward to this month’s astronomical show for a long time. For the lack of a better descriptors, the 1979 eclipse for me has been the most spiritual, awe-inspiring natural event I’ve seen (not counting the births of my children, of course). It’s easy to see why the ancients saw eclipses as an act of the gods, or why some have associated them with the lives of Muhammed and Buddha as well as the crucifixion of Jesus (eclipses occurred in A.D. 29 and 33, although neither occurred near a Passover). Eclipses are both so dramatic and so rare that we instinctly link them to some sort of divine activity.
Here’s what I want to think: that total solar eclipses are God’s way of winking at us, of telling us: “How cool is this! Here’s what I arranged for you, just because I think you’ll enjoy it.”
I realize this isn’t scientific; in one sense, an eclipse is purely a function of optics and mathematics. The sun is about 400 times the distance from us as the moon is, and the sun is also about 400 times as wide. And when they line up just right, the moon blocks the sun without blocking its corona, a glowing “jacket” of plasma and hot gases surrounding the sun. With the sun blocked, the sky turns dark and the air feels cooler; the corona forms a circle, but it’s not bright enough to keep the higher-magnitude stars from appearing. This happens less than once a year on the average, and even when it does the effect usually is visible mainly in unpopulated areas.
If the moon were a smidgeon smaller, part of the sun would still be visible, and the sky wouldn’t get so dark. (In fact, when the moon is in distant part of its orbit, that happens, creating the less spectacular annular eclipse.) If the moon were much larger, we wouldn’t see the corona, and the eclipse also would be much less impressive. (There also would be much less for astronomers to study.) If the moon’s orbit weren’t tilted, the eclipse would become a routine event, happening around the time of every new moon. Everything conspires, it seems, to make the solar eclipse one of the most inspiring events of Nature.
It’s impossible with our current state of knowledge to know how rare such eclipses are in our universe, much less how rarely they occur for planets with intelligent life. We do know that there’s nothing comparable for the other planets of our solar system. Logic would suggest they’re extremely rare.
So rare, in fact, that the astronomical precision needed for this kind of eclipse seems like it has to be more than coincidence. The skeptic may say that’s all it is. But when God winks at me on Aug. 21, I’ll wink right back.
Photo by NASA.