The teen had just learned about the ability of science to bring so much knowledge to his life. Among so many fascinating aspects of reality, he was thinking about solar eclipses – remembering the talk of one elsewhere in the United States just a few years before. How could scientists know the moment, to the fraction of a second, that an eclipse would start and end – and be able to predict that with stunning accuracy decades into the future? So he looked up the eclipse tables – columns of numbers on pages in the backs of some astronomy books (the internet would be seen as science fiction then, if the idea had even came up – which it didn’t). No total eclipses in the United States for the rest of the 1980’s. Looking forward all the way into the 1990’s, still nothing. There, one will be visible in Burma in 1995. How far away is Burma? There’s got to be one here not long after that, the teenager thought. Now the dates are into the 2000’s, and still nothing. The bottom of the list is coming up – but there! There is one that lists “United States”! 2017, more than 30 years into the future. He closed the book in consternation. The list had lots of other total solar eclipses – how could they all miss the United States?! It was as if the Sun was a jerk. It must be wrong! Another book – turn to the back – the table ends with 2010 (because why would anyone care about things so far off in the future?). One book remained on the desk. There, in the back, the table went down to the absurd date of 2020…….. and again listed only the 2017 eclipse for the United States. Cheated! 2017. What will it be like in 2017? He thought about it. “I’ll probably have a job, a house, then. I’ll go to work in a levitating car. Get dinner from a food replicator. But no – by then the U.S.S.R. will certainly have nuked us. If I’m alive, I’d be (a quick calculation…) … nearly 50 years old! I’ll be an old man! What will I look like as an old man?”
That teenager was me, back in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The years have gone by, and I’ve watched the eclipses play out just as the scientists predicted. And now, 2017 is here! I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse (not counting annular eclipses, which don’t have anywhere near the same effect). This year is my chance – and yours. The eclipse path is 60 miles wide. You need to be inside that band to see totality – towards the middle gives a longer eclipse. More details are at the end of this post. Before we get into that, however, imagine what eclipses have meant to our Ancestors over the millennia.
Looking back, our Ancestors’ responses to eclipses reflect the evolution of our minds. Animals as simple as crickets “notice” a total eclipse – commencing their chirping as if it were night. But do they notice this as any different from a normal evening? I don’t know. Do animals like shrews and lemurs realize it’s something different? I would think that monkeys probably think that something is different from a normal nightfall – it’s much faster, and often at the “wrong”time of day – but do they barely notice, or do they freak out? I found some research – it sounds like their response is closer to “barely noticing” (this was for baboons, but I think that’s close enough), so Ancestors before primates probably saw this as an out of place “nightfall”. OK, what about chimps? Do they have the thinking minds that might react in a stronger way? It sounds like they do! This study (reported in the American Journal of Primatology) reports many of them looking up at the eclipse, and a child appearing to take special interest in it. It seems likely that our Ancestors 8 million years ago probably behaved similarly. Behaviors during eclipses don’t tend to fossilize well, so with no living creatures similar to Homo habilis, H. afrarenis, and others, we’ll have to jump ahead millions of years to human records. We know that many different cultures have noticed and written about eclipses for thousands of years – usually in fear. One example is the sad fate of two Chinese astronomers who failed to predict an eclipse in 2,134 BCE, and were beheaded as a result. The importance of eclipses to
humans is also shown by the fact that one role of the Antikythera device (a gear based computer built over 2,000 years ago! Yes, it’s real.) was to predict eclipses. In the dozens of thousands of years that humans like us have lived, how many were amazed, inspired, scared, astounded, etc, by the thousands of total solar eclipses they experienced? How many of them worked these into the their spiritualities in important ways? How many rituals did they inspire? What was it like for the first person to realize they could be predicted? In doing so, did that person banish much of the fear of a supernatural cause, as science has done in case after case? I wish there were a way to know- to see at least some of them! There they hide, behind a nearly unbreachable wall of years, with only a few tiny glimpses being possible. How many eclipse rituals were held in stone circles? How many rituals included sacred items, words, or stories of eclipses? Scientific discovery seems to be the most likely way we might find a few hints of these – just as scientific work gave us the realization of the use of the Nebra Sky Disk. These (along with many other achievements) remind us that our Ancestors were not at all stupid – with minds like ours and a greater focus on the sky as part of their lives, their insights were often far beyond what you or I could accomplish with the limited tools they had.
This is the powerful book of stories we connect with when we too see the blinding Sun blackened in the sky. Like the Sun itself, the details of those many stories are hidden from view – yet I still feel their power, penetrating that wall of years, to my inner being. To connect with all of those people – with countless humans both living and dead – is one gift that the coming eclipse can give us. Don’t miss it! If you are important in the life of a child, is there a way for them to experience it with you? You could give them a gift that they’ll have for the rest of their lives, an experience they’ll remember long after you are gone. If you are lucky enough to be in the path of totality (or know someone who is), this is your only chance to host an eclipse party. I’m sorry that it’s now April, instead of late 2016, when I should have posted this. By now, many of the hotels and state parks along the eclipse path are booked solid (many were booked a year ago) – but there are still some openings! And, regardless of that, with an eclipse path dozens of miles wide (the best viewing is in the middle ~70% or so of the path, which is still ~50 miles wide), one can almost certainly find a place to see it from, if you start planning now. Many religions have discovered the impact of a spiritual pilgrimage, and some, like Islam, require it. I think spiritual pilgramages are yet another religious technology that fits well with Naturalistic Paganism.
Don’t let the fear of eye damage stop you from going – simple precautions are all that are needed to guarantee safety. The biggest uncontrollable concern is probably the chance of clouds on the day of the eclipse, August 21, 2017. The cloud cover chart here shows that the odds of clouds are low – especially for the brown shaded area. Experiencing the eclipse is easy – just be outside, in the path of totality, for the time of the eclipse. The Moon will start covering up the edge of the Sun (if you aren’t looking for this, you won’t notice it happening). From there, it will take around an hour and a half as the Moon covers more and more of the Sun. Then, it will get darker outside, as the Moon fully blocks the Sun. This total coverage will only last for a minute or two. Then, the Sun will emerge from behind the Moon, exposing more and more of the Sun over the next hour and a half. The moment of totality is around 10 am in Oregon, ranging to nearly 3 pm in South Carolina. Look up the exact times for wherever you will be watching from. This will hold millions of people in awe (including both Americans and eclipse chasers), and will be the most photographed, selfied, live streamed, and documented moment in the history of the Universe up to now, as far as we know. Will the next Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse-Tyson will be one of those millions of kids who stare in awe at the fiery ring in the sky this August? Maybe she or he is a child you know, who you will bring to the path of totality?
What will I do during those 100 or so sacred seconds? Will I prepare a ritual? Just revel in it? Hug my kids? I have no idea yet, aside from infusing my Cosmala with the shadow of our Moon, Luna.
Or would the descent into darkness (and then the return of the light) be better times for ritual activity? After all, those times are ~90 minutes long each, and that would make the whole time of totality part of my ritual if I started before totality and ended after it. Pagans who can’t make it (including those on other continents than North America), might want to hold a ritual at a chosen moment during the eclipse. All religions have sacred times and sacred places. For those of us with a naturalistic spirituality (as well as for many others), reality itself – and especially our Earth, Moon and Sun – show us those sacred times. For many of us (and certainly me), this August 21st will be one of those most sacred times. What will those 90 seconds be like for you? I don’t think that can be predicted – we can’t decide when the sacred will touch us. Blessed be.
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.