Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
August 2017

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 footage 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.

G-Tech astronomy 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 all 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:

The 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 collision 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 Miller.

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. Solar 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 deliberately causing 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 that's 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 reasoning is a social process, what kind of culture(s) could we build, fictionally or otherwise, to support everyone in making better decisions?

Or we could step outside, onto the Path of Totality, and look up. Sometimes that works.

Dammit, Jim, Randall Hayes is a neuroscientist, not an astronomer. So thanks to amateur astro-nerd Andi Newton for helpful comments on a draft of this column.



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.












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