The end of the world has come again in the form of the Great American Solar Eclipse. On Aug. 21 the moon will block the sun’s bright disc. Along a 70-mile path that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, we Americans will witness the rare and wonderful glory of a total solar eclipse.
In places like Central Ohio the eclipse will be a partial one. Here, about 85 percent of the sun will be blocked off during maximum eclipse at around 2:30 p.m.
As usual, the eclipse has engendered a plethora of weird predictions.
No matter that a solar eclipse is a simple but rare natural event. The moon blocks the sun. The event is total over a very small part of Earth’s surface because the moon’s dark, central shadow is in this case only 70 miles wide as it touches Earth and sweeps across our planet at 1,600 miles per hour.
No matter that there are, on average, 2.5 solar eclipses every year. Those events mostly occur in remote places that are mostly unpopulated and, more critically, unpopulated by Americans.
Let’s face it. We are also prone to what might be called a uniquely American weirdness. Some of us love to make connections that defy logic and reduce themselves to self-parody. We love our conspiracy theories, and we sometimes fixate on events and their unconnected potential consequences. Thus, some percentage, usually small, of the American population will obsess on the eclipse to a degree that is exacerbated by the free flow of information, dubious or otherwise, on the Internet.
Astronomical events are particularly prone to our correlative obsession. How many times in the last few decades has some astronomical event (or non-event) presaged the end of the world?
Two recent ones come to mind. The five-planet alignment at the turn of the millennium was supposed to herald the destruction of civilization. What a planetary lineup could not do, the smartphone, video games, and Internet have done instead.
And then there is the supposed planet Nibiru with its elongated orbit that brings it near Earth every few thousand years. Civilization is doing just fine until a near-Earth Nibiru encounter, but then Nibiru’s gravity wreaks havoc, and we have to start over again.
We started getting calls at Perkins about the planet in 2008 with a predicted apocalypse date in 2009. “Use your telescope to look to the sky in (dramatic pause) Orion!” they said, but sadly Nibiru did not appear in Orion or anyplace else.
Now, some Biblical propheteers (or is it “profiteers”?) are saying that the eclipse is a harbinger of Nibiru’s return in September or October. Note to those Biblical “scholars”: If it really was that close, we would have seen it by now.
Paul Begley, the host of the Coming Apocalypse radio show, thinks that the eclipse fulfills a prophecy in the Biblical book of Joel. When the “Day of the Lord” finally comes, it says, the “the sun shall be turned to darkness.”
Of course, many total solar eclipses — many of them even longer and better than this one — have occurred since Joel was written. Did the world end while we weren’t paying attention?
Author Mark Blitz also believes that a solar eclipse is a sign from God. Whatever nation it touches is being given a special message, and this totality is visible only in the United States. He asks, “Could God be giving us a warning that we need to repent or judgment will be coming to the United States? The timing couldn’t be clearer!”
One has to wonder about solar eclipses that are visible only over oceans or the vast, icy wastes of Antarctica. What special message is being delivered to dolphins and polar bears?
And please don’t panic, fellow and sister apocalyptoids. We’re due to get another warning in 2024 in case this one doesn’t stick.
Michael Parker of the Prophecies of the End Times website believes that there is special significance in the fact that the path of totality passes right through the American heartland from west to east, “essentially cutting it in half.” This is apparently a warning not to divide the state of Israel, or a war involving our country and Israel will ensue.
I, well, golly. I am at a loss for words. I can think of not a single snarky remark to respond to his stunning set of non-sequiturs.
Even the astrologers have gotten into the act. Some of them claim that Donald Trump is astrologically susceptible to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse because he was born during a lunar eclipse. Because the sun will be briefly blotted out, he is apparently in great danger of being removed from office by political coup or impeachment in the next two years. Why two years? Because the totality of the eclipse is two minutes long, and to astrologers, a minute is equivalent to a year.
The length of totality actually varies along the eclipse path. It ranges from two minutes up to two minutes and 40 seconds. Thus, Trump may last a bit longer than they predict.
I must confess that I feel a curious affinity with the people mentioned above. I have spent a lifetime in the same pursuit as theirs — trying to find meaning in a vast and often incomprehensible cosmos.
In that regard, I have seen but one total eclipse. I would like to think of myself as a rational human who understands the simple mechanics of a solar eclipse. However, the sight of the sun’s corona pushed rationality aside as my tears of joy reminded me of the wondrous beauty of the universe and our small part in it.
And I must also confess, non-believer that I am, that as I watched the sun’s glorious halo shifting gently in the solar wind, these lines from Psalm 19 ran gently through my head:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.”
If you are looking for some hidden message in the Great American Solar eclipse, you certainly have those two to choose from.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.
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