Solar Eclipse History: Fascinating Facts
Solar eclipses have fascinated humans since the dawn of civilization. These awe-inspiring celestial events have shaped history, culture, and science over the millennia. As we prepare to experience the wonder of an upcoming eclipse, let's take a look back at some of the most fascinating facts from the long and storied history of solar eclipses.
Ancient Reactions to Eclipses
Eclipses have invoked powerful reactions throughout history as humans struggled to explain the sun's disappearance. In ancient China, people would make noise during eclipses to scare away the dragon they believed was devouring the sun. Some Australian aboriginal tribes thought it was the sun fighting with the moon.
The ancient Greeks perceived lunar eclipses as omens of doom and chaos. But they had a better understanding of solar eclipses. Greek philosopher Anaxagoras correctly explained eclipses were caused by the moon blocking the sun's light around 450 BC.
However, this rational explanation didn't become widely accepted for centuries. Aristotle rejected Anaxagoras's insight and argued instead that eclipses must be caused by opaque earth passing in front of the sun. Due to Aristotle's authoritative status, this backwards explanation prevailed in Europe for nearly 2,000 years.
The Long Wait for Totality
While partial and annular eclipses happen frequently, total solar eclipses are rare at any given spot on Earth. The longest duration between two total solar eclipses visible from a location is an incredible 1,171 years! This occurred between total eclipses visible from Limerick, Ireland in 1085 AD and 2256 AD.
The shortest time between consecutive totalities for a location is just 2 years and 4 days. This will occur between the eclipses on April 8, 2024 and April 2, 2026 visible from northwestern Mexico and southwestern Texas.
Eclipse Spotlight: May 28, 585 BC
The May 28, 585 BC solar eclipse holds the distinction of being the earliest recorded total eclipse. It passed over modern day Turkey and was described by ancient Greek historian Herodotus. He tells of a war between the Lydians and Medes that was immediately halted when day suddenly turned to night during the eclipse. The warring kings took it as a sign to make peace.
This eclipse served as important early evidence that these events could be predicted based on consistent astronomical patterns rather than being mythical omens. The date and path were confirmed in the late 19th century by modern eclipse predictions matching Herodotus's account.
Longest Solar Eclipse of the Millennium
On July 22, 2009, the longest total solar eclipse of the millennium occurred, lasting a maximum of 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The path of totality stretched across India and China, giving tens of millions of people an incredible opportunity to experience darkness at midday.
At the eclipse epicenter near the coast of the Japanese island Iwo Jima, totality lasted for the full 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The last time an eclipse lasted this long was in June 1239 AD, 770 years earlier! The next eclipse predicted to last 6.5 minutes won't occur until June 2590 AD.
Eclipse Chasers and Devotees
Charles Le Gendre gained fame as the "Champion Eclipse Chaser" for witnessing 42 total solar eclipses during his lifetime (1899-1989). He worked meticulously to fund and plan trips to remote eclipse locations long before the era of jet travel. Modern eclipse chasers have since broken his record, aided by better access to global transportation.
Kate Russo has seen 33 total eclipses and written three books about eclipse chasing. Eclipse devotees like her preach that despite modern understanding of the science, the experience of totality cannot be described, only marveled. The sight of the sun's pearly corona and strange midday darkness is said to be life-changing.
Eclipse Events That Made History
- The total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC ended the Battle of Halys, redirecting the course of the Lydian and Median empires.
- In 1504 AD, explorer Christopher Columbus leveraged his knowledge of an impending eclipse to save his stranded crew from starvation. He threatened indigenous Jamaicans that the gods would steal the moon if they didn't continue providing provisions.
- Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity was famously confirmed by measurements conducted during the May 29, 1919 total solar eclipse. The gravitational bending of starlight was observed to match his predictions.
- During a solar eclipse on June 8, 1918, the coldest weather ever recorded in Florida struck, causing crop failures and a mass fish kill. Mid-eclipse temperatures plunged from 90°F to 57°F in Tallahassee.
Weird Eclipse Phenomena
- Shadow bands: Flickering bands of light and dark can be seen on plain surfaces just before and after totality. They are caused by Earth's turbulent atmosphere.
- Bailey's beads: As the moon's surface begins covering the sun, beads of sunlight shine through valleys along the moon's edge, named after astronomer Francis Bailey who explained the effect in 1836.
- Diamond ring effect: A final burst of light resembles a diamond ring at the moment before totality and again just before it ends, marking the start and end of the eclipse's total phase.
- Baily's beads, the diamond ring, and shadow bands are all caused by the moon's uneven terrain allowing some sunlight to leak through in dramatic ways.
Animal Reactions to Totality
Humans aren't the only ones who react oddly to the abrupt darkness and temperature changes caused by a total eclipse. Animals also display strange behaviors:
- Birds often go silent and return to roosts as if nightfall has arrived early.
- Cows have been known to lie down as they would at nighttime during totality.
- Nocturnal animals like bats and owls sometimes emerge, believing daytime has transitioned to night.
- Zoologists observed groups of chimpanzees becoming agitated during the total eclipse of November 23, 1984, screaming and moving erratically.
Ancient Eclipse Myths and Legends
- In Hindu mythology, the demon Rahu is said to occasionally consume the sun causing eclipses before the sun escapes. People believe making noise scares the demon away, causing this ritual during eclipses.
- Vietnamese folklore interprets a giant frog devouring the moon or sun during solar and lunar eclipses. People would make loud noises to scare away the frog and rescue the moon or sun.
- The Vikings saw eclipses as a sign that angry wolves were chasing and devouring the sun or moon. People would howl and make noises to frighten the wolves away.
- In Tahiti, eclipses were believed caused by the moon and sun mating. The cries of people on Earth encouraged them to complete their tryst so full light would return.
- Ancient Mesopotamians believed the seven demi-gods who protected the days of the week were being kidnapped during solar eclipses. They would make music and conjure spells to secure their release.
The Great American Eclipse
More than 200 million Americans across 14 states experienced the awe-inspiring total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. It was the most observed eclipse in human history with over 215 million American adults viewing it.
The path of totality passed from Oregon to South Carolina lasting up to 2 minutes and 40 seconds at the point of greatest duration. The event captured unprecedented media hype and attention in the modern era, rekindling American interest in eclipse chasing and astronomy.
Upcoming Total Solar Eclipses
While partial and annular eclipses occur most years, total eclipses are rarer events. Here are some upcoming total solar eclipses to start planning for now:
- April 20, 2023 - Visible across Southeast Asia and northern Australia
- April 8, 2024 - Crosses Mexico, central U.S., and eastern Canada
- August 2, 2027 - Northern Spain and Morocco
- March 29, 2033 - Alaska to Florida across central America
- September 2, 2035 - China, Korea, and Japan
- August 12, 2045 - Western U.S., central Canada, Greenland, Iceland
Experience the Majesty Yourself
While we can read about past eclipses, there's nothing like witnessing totality yourself. The world's next eclipse on 2023, 24th of October provides a chance to stand in awe as the prehistoric cycles of the heavens unfold above you. Just as eclipses have inspired and confounded humans for millenia, an eclipse today reconnects us to cosmic mysteries beyond everyday life.