Total Eclipfe of the Fun
Back in the days of
gentlemen and long
Ss, astronomers tended to be a wealthy bunch.
They had to be, to buy or build their own telescopes and the
observatories to house them. Take Percival Lowell, who described the
Martian canal system that inspired H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice
Burroughs (among others). Lowell was a Boston Brahmin who decided to
go beyond complaining about atmospheric interference
with telescopes by building his personal
observatory on the top of a mountain in
Flagstaff, Arizona. That’s not the kind of thing your average
citizen scientist could aspire to at the time. His other hobbies
included writing about Japanese culture firsthand,
in the 1880s, when travel there involved a lot more than a plane
ticket to Tokyo.
Nowadays, with the
Internet, pretty much anyone can book observing time, or contribute
to citizen science projects, or access photographic plates that have
never been thoroughly catalogued, like they do up at PARI,
an old NSA listening post near Asheville, with summer interns and
school kids. Even our local community
college has a 24-inch mirror that students and
the public can use, in person, every clear Friday night.
professor Tom English has also done a yeoman’s job of
organizing free twice-yearly space symposia (professional ones
in the fall and public ones in the spring), with really good expert
speakers from around the country. Sadly, these have not attracted
many of our local SF authors. I hope to change that in coming
years. I’ve started talking up those meetings at SF
conventions like ConGregate
/ Deep South Con, and I want to continue the process by devoting this
August anniversary column to the Great American Eclipse of 2017,
which will happen in just a few days. Eclipses were the subject of
the spring TriStar meeting this year, with more of a historical
focus than usual, which might have been especially appropriate for
writers, who really get into the “who was where with whom”
aspect that drives a lot of alt-history. For example, who knew that
quintessential urban inventor Thomas Edison went West to observe an
eclipse in 1878? Or that Vassar College sent a groundbreaking
expedition of female students to the same event?
Solar eclipses happen
the flamin’ time in fiction, though most
of the physical phenomena
associated with them are rarely detailed in the dramatic versions.
We rarely hear about the rippling shadow
bands, making the atmospheric winds that so
peeved Lowell temporarily visible; or Bailey’s
beads; or the diamond ring that you see during
the opening to Heroes, or the pinkish hydrogen chromosphere,
normally invisible because it is less bright than the photosphere
beneath it. Which is a shame, because astronomers can be rather
poetic in their own descriptions:
globe of the moon, black as ink, is seen as if it were hanging in
mid-air, surrounded by a crown of soft, silvery light, like that
which the old painters used to depict around the heads of saints.
Besides this ‘corona’, tongues of rose-coloured flame of
the most fantastic forms shoot out from various points around the
edge of the lunar disk.”
-Simon Newcomb, Popular Astronomy, 1890
As often as eclipses
happen fictionally, you’d think the characters in books would
be used to them, and stop falling for that old “I’m going
to banish the sun” bluff. Although to be fair, the ancient
between proto-Earth and another ancient planetoid called Theia did
create a unique situation. As one result of that collision, our moon
is really big, compared to the size of the planet, and the relative
distances between Earth, Moon, and Sun work out almost perfectly.
Viewed from the right spots, the moon fully blocks the body of the
sun but not its blazing corona. Depending on how active the sun is,
in some cases you can actually see solar flares looping out from the
surface of the sun, what eclipse-watchers call prominences. That
visually impressive display does not happen with the vanilla transits
of other satellites across the sun, viewed from their planets. And
because of the inverse
square law for distance, the sun is often
rather puny, compared to the much closer planet, as seen from most
moons in our system, according to artist Ron
What could take the
place of an eclipse, narratively? Comets were traditionally
considered bad omens, and featured prominently in early science
fiction, including a story
by turn-of-the-century intellectual WEB
Dubois, in which the earth passes through the
tail of a comet, causing toxic chemicals to enter the atmosphere and
kill lots of people. Now, of course, we only worry about impacts.
storms could be pretty devastating for an
electronic society like ours. They make pretty sky-pictures,
too. Or possibly reversals
in a planet’s magnetic field, the weakening of which would make
a culture more vulnerable to normal solar activity. We can’t
predict either of those yet, at least not precisely, but someone with
better technology might be able to, and take advantage of that
information for dramatic purposes (not to mention the possibility of
an EMP with a nuclear weapon). The same goes for earthquakes,
tsunamis, and volcanoes. Except for auroras, though, all of those
things are objectively dangerous, in ways that eclipses and
the tails of comets are not. They don’t contain that element
of trickery on which so many stories rely to make the reader feel
just as clever as the trickster protagonist.
Perhaps more to the
point, why are our heroes still tricking their way to instant
credibility, even in parody?
That’s a 19th-century literary fashion, part of the
divide-and-conquer colonial mindset. It was no more realistic than
the older fairy tales, which usually required three
separate events to transform a character’s
role in society. Our current corporate, TED-style
storytellers focus on their failures as much as their successes,
trying to capture their audiences through inspiring positive emotions
rather than provoking their fears. It's a kinder, gentler form of
manipulation, but manipulation nonetheless.
I would suggest writing
inspirational stories where everybody is humble and rational, but
been tried. Except for Star Trek, it
never works (especially when it’s designed
to fail). What if instead we follow Douglas Adams,
Terry Pratchett, and the Tick
– abandon the idea that we are or even should be sane? What if
we accept that we make emotional decisions and then justify them, the
same way everybody else does? If we started from the assumption that
is a social process, what kind of culture(s)
could we build, fictionally or otherwise,
to support everyone in making better
Or we could step
outside, onto the Path of Totality, and look up. Sometimes that
Dammit, Jim, Randall
Hayes is a neuroscientist, not an astronomer. So thanks to amateur
Newton for helpful comments on a draft of
Just do a search for “eclipfe,” and you’ll find a plenitude of old scanned almanacs and such.
“Light years out from here to there / Your light’s distorted by the air”
http://www.pari.edu, which stands for Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute
David Baron (who spoke at TriStar this spring) writes about the life and times of a pivotal 1878 eclipse.
“AMERICAN ECLIPSE tells the story of these pioneering
scientists—planet hunter James Craig Watson, astronomer Maria
Mitchell, and inventor Thomas Edison—who gathered in the West
with an extraordinary cast of supporting characters on a day when the
sun hid and far more was revealed. An untold tale of ambition,
failure, and eventual triumph, the book brings to life the
intellectual and technological flowering of late-nineteenth-century
America, a period that laid the foundation for the country’s
eventual rise to scientific greatness.”
The Great Eclipse of 2017
This site includes some NASA-funded short stories, in addition to all the science.
“Flyover” video. Notice how the shadow is not a perfect circle but an ellipse. No, I don’t know why.
The moon turns red during lunar eclipses because the sun is “throwing all of the sunrises and all of the sunsets onto the moon at the same time.” Great phrase.
20 novels and 34 movies in this one incomplete list!
Includes modeling tools!
Newcomb quote from this page, which includes both real and fictional examples.
This is surprisingly simple once you see it drawn it out geometrically.
Thanks, Borb. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:User:Borb?rdfrom=commons:User:Borb
Make sure you click through to Hubblecast episode 77, which describes the “Bermuda Triangle of Space.”
Nicest quick explanation I’ve found of how an EMP actually works.
Read more by Randall Hayes