“With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect. You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.”
– Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”
An estimated 500 million people — including many in Samuel Clemens’s (aka, Mark Twain’s) home state of Missouri — will witness today’s total solar eclipse. Many Cayman residents have joined the throngs traveling to the US to witness this awesome and rare event.
Here in Cayman, at 2:07 p.m., the moon will block out a little more than half of the sun — which will hang like a brilliant crescent in the sky. An awe-inspiring event, in itself.
Watching an eclipse is a humbling experience — a reminder of how vast and complex our universe really is. Ancient peoples tried to make sense of this unsettling phenomenon by creating myths and legends, many featuring supernatural beings or animals “swallowing” the sun (indeed, the sun does seem to have been nibbled on during a partial eclipse). They viewed eclipses as portents of calamity, tragedy, war or disease.
Today, of course, we know that eclipses are not caused by magic or disaster, but by the occasional alignment of the earth, moon and sun. (Astronomically speaking, it’s called a “syzygy.”) In fact, it is likely that Mr. Clemens drew on a true story when he wrote the pivotal scene mentioned above. It happened here in the Caribbean, in 1504, when Christopher Columbus managed to wriggle out of some trouble in Jamaica by using his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse.
Eclipses are such an orderly occurrence that they can be mathematically predicted across thousands of years. As NASA researchers write on the organization’s website, solar eclipses are “a re-affirmation that there is a sublime clock-work regularity to the universe as Sir Isaac Newton admired over 300 years ago.”
Just as the Yankee of Mr. Clemens’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” was too worried about saving his hide to much marvel at what the heavens were up to, it may be that the entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on eclipse tourists have not thought much about what they are about to witness. Today’s event is certain to give them a greater respect for the beautiful complexity of our world.
As Annie Dillard describes it in her essay “Total Eclipse,” “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.”
Eclipses don’t need to be magical to be marvelous. Just think of it: We can predict exactly when the moon (about one-fourth the size of earth) will pass between us and the sun (1.3 million times larger than the earth), creating the appearance of a hole in the sky.
Our more primitive ignorance about eclipses has been cured by science, but science has also opened our eyes to mysteries that are far greater, more bizarre and more obscure than anything we could have formerly imagined.
So take a moment today to witness the heavens’ spectacular choreography, but remember only to do so indirectly, or while wearing special sunglasses designed for eclipse viewing.
Because no matter how smart we are and how much knowledge we acquire as a species, the simple fact is that we are but one part of an infinitely complex and grand existence, and human beings cannot safely stare into the sun.