Astronomy, science and solar eclipses

Sandy Vasko

    The astronomical event of the century? I am writing this on the day of the eclipse. We have been aware of this phenomenon for many centuries, in many cultures, in many scientific observatories.    How did we view the skies in the past? What did we know of particles emitting from the sun, the sun's corona? Today we look at the history of astrophysics.
    One author I connect with heavenly happenings is Mark Twain. He was born in 1835, one day after Halley's Comet appeared in the sky, and predicted his death on the next approach. Indeed, he died in 1910 of a heart attack, one day after Halley's Comet appeared at its brightest.
    In the Wilmington Advocate of July 22, 1910, we read of what science thought about the event.
    “The tail of Halley's Comet - As has already been pointed out in this department, the astronomers are not quite sure that the earth passed through the tail of Halley's comet at the time when the phenomenon was expected. For a day or two this tail almost entirely disappeared, and when it was again seen it was shorter than it was before.”
    “A distinguished Frenchman, Flammarion, thinks that the predicted event really occurred without being noticed. For that opinion, there is some excuse. On two previous occasions the earth passed through a comet's tail without any effects being felt.”
    “Other professional stargazers of less prominence believe that the tail shortened so suddenly that the earth could not well encounter it. For that particular effect, an ingenious explanation is offered by Dr. Innes, of the observatory in the Transvaal, South Africa. In a letter to “Nature” he advances the theory that the earth exerts a repellent influence on the particles of a comet's tail, like that exercised by the sun. He thinks that when the tail came nearly in line with the earth, pointing away from the sun, this influence disorganized the appendage almost completely.”
    Mark Twain went on to write “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court”, the first place I encountered the mention of a solar eclipse. The main character saves himself by using a solar eclipse to his advantage. In this scenario, the population of King Arthur's time were totally ignorant of eclipses.
    This was certainly not so. In fact, archeologists have recently found a depiction of an eclipse from about 5,000 years ago in Ireland.
    The Native American cultures in North America also were very aware of eclipses. It is a sacred time. Some tribes believe it is a mating ritual between the Sun, a male deity from which all life springs, and the moon, a female deity from which all life is born.
    After an eclipse, it is said, the world experiences a rebirth of a sort. One can only hope.
    And what of other celestial bodies in our sky? We read in the Wilmington Advocate in February of 1911, “Mercury and Venus are already dead and dried up worlds, Mars is rapidly approaching a state of wrinkled old age, and the earth is next in the procession headed toward the extinction of all life,” according to Dr. Percival Lowell, head of the Lowell observatory.”
    “Mars is certainly inhabited by some character of organized life,” Dr. Lowell said in his opening lecture, “and the Martians have far greater reason to deny that there is life on the earth than we have that they do not exist.”
    “But there is no life on any other planets besides the earth and Mars, all other members of the solar system being either already dried up, so that life, animal or vegetable, cannot exist, or else, like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, are much too young in the world evolution, and therefore much too hot from interior sources, to admit of life of any kind.”    
    “On Mars, the clearing of the atmosphere, which has been going on since the Paleozoic era, has reached perfection. Man, indeed must be the source of constant annoyance to an orderly creator, for he is constantly interfering with the natural course of events.”
    “With city chimneys always belching forth smoke and making it rain, man is responsible for more than half the bad weather of which he complains. On Mars, the sky is perpetually clear from morning until night and from spring to fall.”
    “While the water on the earth is slowly but surely disappearing through sublimation into the heavens, and sinking into the earth, on Mars the seas have already disappeared, though there appears to have been seas there ages ago.”
    We are obviously still learning how to protect our earth from Sir Lowell's prediction.