I am sure many of us are thinking about the eclipse.
It all starts with how far are we going to drive in order to see totality. My family and I are currently in Colorado, so we are relatively close to the path of darkness in Wyoming. I thought about trying to book a hotel room. But if you’d like to see the dusk in Lusk, here is what you get:
Let us just say that I became quite acquainted with small-town WY and any-ville NE before giving up. Driving in the same day for 10 hours with my two children, ages 4 and 5, was not an option. So I will have to be content with 90% coverage.
90% coverage sounds like it is good enough… But when you think about the sun and its output, you realize that it won’t actually be very dark. The sun gives out about 1kW of light and heat per square meter. 90% of that still leaves us with 100W per meter squared. Imagine a room lit by a square array of 100W incandescent bulbs at one meter apart from each other. Not so dark. Luckily, we have really dark eclipse glasses.
All things considered, it is a huge coincidence that the moon is just about the right size and distance from the earth to block the sun exactly, .
On a more personal note, another coincidence of a lesser cosmic meaning is that my wife, Jocelyn Holland, a professor of comparative literature at UCSB and Caltech, has also done research on eclipses. She has recently published an essay that shows how, for nineteenth-century observers, and astronomers in particular, the unique darkness associated with the eclipse during totality shook their subjective experience of time. Readers might want to share their own personal experiences at the end of this blog so that we can see how a twenty-first century perspective compares.
As for Jocelyn’s paper, here is a redacted ‘poetry for scientists’ excerpt from it.
Eclipses are well-known objects of scientific study but it is just as true that, throughout history, they have been perceived as the most supernatural of events, permitting superstition and fear to intrude. As a result, eclipses have frequently been used across cultures, in particular, by the community of scientists and scholars, as an index of “enlightenment.” Astronomers in the nineteenth century – an epoch that witnessed several mathematical advances in the calculation of solar and lunar eclipses, as exemplified in the work of Friedrich Bessel – looked back at prior centuries with scorn, mocking the irrational fears of times past. The German astronomer Ludwig August Busch, in text published shortly before a total eclipse in 1851, points out with some smugness that scarcely 200 years before then, in Germany, “the majority of the population threw itself upon its knees in desperation during a total eclipse,” and that the composure with which the next eclipse will be greeted is “the most certain proof how only science is able to conquer prejudices and superstition which prior centuries have gone through.”
Two solar eclipses were witnessed by Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, on July 8th, 1842 and July 28th, 1851, when the first photographic image of an eclipse was made by Julius Berkowski (see below).
What Berkowski’s daguerreotype cannot convey, however, is a particular perception shared by both professional astronomers and amateur observers of these eclipses: that the darkness of the eclipse’s totality is unlike any darkness they had experienced before. As it turns out, this perception posed a challenge to their self-proclaimed enlightenment.
There was already a historical record in place describing the strange darkness of a total eclipse. As another nineteenth-century astronomer, Jacob Lehmann, phrased it, “How is it now to be explained, namely what several observers report during the eclipse of 1706, that the darkness at the time of the total occultation of the sun compares neither to night nor to dusk, but rather is of a particular kind. What is this particular kind?” The strange darkness of the eclipse presents a problem that one can state quite simply in temporal terms: it corresponds to no prior experience of natural light or time of day.
It might strike us as odd that August Ludwig Busch, the same astronomer who derided the superstition of prior generations, writes the following with reference to eclipses past, and in anticipation of the eclipse of 1851:
You will all remember the inexplicable melancholic frame of mind which one already experiences during large if not even total eclipses, when all objects appear in a dull, unusual light, there lies namely in the sight of great plains and far-spread drifts, upon which trees and rocks, although still illuminated by sunlight, still seem to cast no shadow, such a thing which causes mourning, that one is involuntarily overcome by horror. This feeling should occur more intensely in people when, during the total eclipse, a very peculiar darkness arrives which can be named neither night nor dusk.
August Ludwig Busch.
One can say that the perceived relationship between the quality of light and time of day is based on expectations that are so innate as to be taken as infallible until experience teaches otherwise. It is natural for us to use the available light in the sky as the basis for a measure of time when no time-keeping piece is on hand. The cyclical predictability of a steady increase and decrease in available light during the course of the day, however, in addition to all the nuances of how the midday light differs from dawn and twilight, is less than helpful in the rare event of an eclipse. The quality of light does not correspond to any experience of lived time. As a consequence, not only August Ludwig Busch, but also numerous other observers, attributed it to death, as if for lack of an alternative.
For all their claims of rationality, nineteenth-century observers were troubled by this darkness that conformed to no experienced time of day. It signaled to them, among other things, that time and light are out of joint. In short, as natural and as it may be, a full solar eclipse has, historically, posed a real challenge: not to the predictability of mechanical time-keeping, but rather to a very human experience of time.