By Norma Reis
Part 2: Solar Eclipses of the Middle Ages
Muhammad’s Eclipse (632 CE)
The founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad, was born in Mecca in the Year of the Elephant, CE 569-570. His birth year got its name from an invasion by the Abyssinians, who used elephants in the assault. The army was driven off when birds dropped stones on the troops, causing an epidemic similar to smallpox. The Year of the Elephant was also memorable because of its solar eclipse.
In ancient times, births and deaths of leaders were correlated to celestial omens. However, Islamic theology does not accept that the eclipse was sent by God as an omen of the prophet’s birth, a doctrine that is based on another solar eclipse closely tied to Muhammad. His infant son Ibrahim died tragically on January 27, 632 CE. The Sun was eclipsed that day, and some Meccans said it was a sign from God. Muhammad, though, said “The Sun and Moon are signs of God and do not eclipse for the death or birth of any man.”
Another solar eclipse related to Muhammad occurred 39 years after his death. In 661 CE, Mu’awiyah became leader of the empire after a revolt against Ali, the son of Muhammad’s chief Meccan enemy. Mu’awiyah decided to transfer the prophet’s pulpit from Medina to his capital in Damascus, Syria, but as his men were removing it, the sky darkened and stars were visible. It was considered a sign of divine anger, and the relic remained in Medina as a symbol of Mu’awiyah’s failure.
Solar Eclipse of the Emperor Louis (840 CE)
Louis of Bavaria, the son of Charlemagne, was head of a great empire when, on May 5, 840 CE, he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was so petrified that he died just afterwards. His three sons then began to dispute his succession. Their quarrel was settled three years later with the Treaty of Verdun, dividing Europe into three large areas, namely France, Germany and Italy.
King Henry’s Eclipse (1133 CE)
Visible in England and Germany, this total solar eclipse happened on August 2, 1133 CE, and prompted many descriptions in the chronicles of both countries. For the English, the eclipse occurred the day after the departure of King Henry I, being interpreted as an omen of his death. In fact, the king died shortly afterwards in Normandy, which subsequently confirmed the superstition. As for the Germans, they associated the darkening of the Sun to the sack of the city of Augsburg and the massacre of its inhabitants by Duke Frederick.
The Black Hour (1433 CE)
One of the most celebrated eclipses in the Middle Ages was called the “Black Hour”. It happened in Scotland and it has been said that darkness came about 3 pm on June 17, 1433 CE, and was very deep.
Part 3: Solar Eclipses of the Modern Era
Edmond Halley’s Eclipse (1715 CE)
A few seconds before the Sun was all hid, there discovered itself round the Moon a luminous ring about a digit, or perhaps a tenth part of the Moon’s diameter, in breadth. It was of a pale whiteness, or rather pearl-color, seeming to me a little tinged with the colors of the iris, and to be concentric with the Moon. – Edmond Halley
Above was the description of the British astronomer Halley (1656-1742) for the solar corona during the total eclipse of May 3, 1715 CE, which was visible in England and Wales. Halley thought that he had seen the Moon’s atmosphere for the first time! He became famous for discovering the periodicity of certain comets and predicting their return 76 years after the one he had observed in 1682. Basing his calculations on the law of universal attraction established by Newton, he provided the first physical explanation for the appearance of these wandering bodies that had previously terrified people.
Total Solar Eclipse of Louis XV (1724 CE)
The last total eclipse of the Sun visible in Paris occurred on May 22, 1724 CE. The young King Louis XV, at the time fourteen years old, observed it. The path of its shadow, very similar to the eclipse of August 11, 1999 CE, shifted southwards, and crossed England, France and Germany. It was carefully calculated and mapped, and painters depicted scenes of the crowds of spectators.
Nat Turner’s Eclipse (1831 CE)
The greatest slave revolt in North America was led by Nat Turner (1800-1831). The clever Turner learned how to read with his master’s son – an undesirable skill from the masters’ viewpoint for a slave during these times due to fear of rebellion. Turner, afterwards, dedicated himself to religion and became a preacher for his followers (Schaefer, 1994). In 1828, he had a vision: he would lead his people to liberty, but he should wait for a sign from God – and it came from the sky.
An annular eclipse of the Sun occurred on February 12, 1831. Turner saw it as a ‘black angel’ occulting a white one – the time had arrived for blacks to overcome whites, so it was the right moment for rebellion. Several months later, after having murdered his original masters, Turner and his band of insurgents headed for the small town of Jerusalem where militiamen promptly interrupted their march. Most of the slaves, including Turner, went into hiding for seventy days before being taken to the gallows and hanged. Many people died in this revolt, and in no other episode have so many slave owners perished, a reason why many consider Turner to be a hero of the resistance to oppression against black people in the United States.
Adams’ Eclipse (1851 CE)
The total solar eclipse of July 28, 1851 CE, was the first subject of an eclipse expedition. The total phase was visible in Norway and Sweden, and many astronomers from all parts of Europe traveled to those countries to see the eclipse. Red flames were in evidence, and the fact that they belonged to the Sun and not to the Moon was clearly established.
The first photograph of the solar corona was taken during this solar eclipse and the best observations were made in Scandinavia. Edwin Dunkin wrote:
The prominences were clearly visible, especially a large hooked protuberance. This remarkable stream of hydrogen gas, rendered incandescent while passing through the heated photosphere of the Sun, attracted the attention of nearly all the observers at the different stations.
The best account comes from the great astronomer, John Couch Adams. In 1845, Adams calculated, at the same time as the Frenchman Le Verrier, the position of Neptune. At this time in history, many astronomers had never observed a total eclipse, because they rarely occurred at any given place, and transport facilities were few and far between. In his article that appeared in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Adams’ lyrical style conveys the extraordinary emotion of an experienced astronomer who realizes that he is a complete novice in seeing this spectacle for the first time:
The approach of the total eclipse of July 28, 1851, produced in me a strong desire to witness so rare and striking a phenomenon. Not that I had much hope of being able to add anything of scientific importance to the accounts of the many experienced astronomers who were preparing to observe it; for I was not unaware of the difficulty which one not much accustomed to astronomical observation would have in preserving the requisite coolness and command of the attention amid circumstances so novel, where the points of interest are so numerous, and the time allowed for observation is so short.
Adams then describes the magical appearance of the corona:
The appearance of the corona, shining with a cold unEarthly light, made an impression on my mind which can never be effaced, and an involuntary feeling of loneliness and disquietude came upon me… A party of haymakers, who had been laughing and chatting merrily at their work during the early part of the eclipse, were now seated on the ground, in a group near the telescope, watching what was taking place with the greatest interest, and preserving a profound silence… A crow was the only animal near me; it seemed quite bewildered, croaking and flying backwards and forwards near the ground in an uncertain manner.
In another written piece, he compares the corona with the luminous halo that painters draw around the heads of saints.
General Gordon and Fatal Eclipses (1863 and 1885 CE)
An ancient Chinese aphorism says that every dynasty starts with the replacement of an old, degenerate regime ruled by corruption and ineffectiveness. But as time goes by, new governors, in principle virtuous, come into the same vices and the so-called “Mandate of Heaven” (as they reign by divine gift) is passed on. In such a society, signs of the sky can greatly influence politics. The Ch’ing dynasty began in 1644, and achieved great splendor. By the mid-19th century, however, it started to become ineffective and corrupt. At this time, the British general Charles Gordon was charged by the western powers to help the Emperor of China and his dynasty in their fight against the Taiping revolt. Skilled with military genius and leadership, Gordon commanded an army of Chinese mercenaries and had many victories.
On November 25, 1863 CE, a partial lunar eclipse frightened his troops during the siege of Soochow (Suzhou) in Kiangsu (Jiangsu). The superstitious Chinese interpreted the event as a bad omen for the Emperor. Soochow was not conquered and the Taiping revolt was settled peacefully. The effect of this eclipse can thus be seen as a cause of General Gordon’s first defeat. Another eclipse – solar this time – on March 16, was directly responsible for his death. In 1886, he was in charge of the defense of Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, under attack by a charismatic religious leader, the Mahdi. A solar eclipse demoralized Gordon’s troops. The city was taken before British troops could arrive with reinforcements and the British general did not survive the massacre.
The Great Eclipse of 1878
The Moon’s shadow took some 20 minutes to cross Wyoming and Colorado, in the United States, on July 29, 1878. Considered one of the greatest eclipse events of that century, it is known as the great eclipse of 1878 for its large path of visibility. Many tourists filled hotels to see the spectacle – even the famous inventor Thomas Edison was there. Extensive preparations were made by officers in charge of the National Observatory to observe the eclipse. Five expeditions were assigned to observe the phenomenon and conduct relevant scientific investigations, such as making drawings of the corona, and to study the physical constitution of the Sun. Although the corona was photographed in 1851, the results were not satisfactory and, in 1878, drawings provided the best information on its size and shape.
The 1878 eclipse was observed by the American astronomer Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer to join the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She led a team of five of her students on a cross-country journey to Denver, Colorado, to observe and scientifically report a total solar eclipse. They traveled by train at a time when women did not travel unescorted. Her students were fascinated with the trip, although a little frightened.
Maria took care of all the logistics of sending telescopes to an observational site and gave each student instructions, telling them the observations they should make:
“You will see Nature as you never saw it before – it will neither be day nor night – open your senses to all the revelations”, she pointed out. “Let your eyes take note of the colors of Earth and Sky. Observe the tint of the Sun. Look for a gleam of light in the horizon. Notice the color of the foliage. Use another sense – notice if flowers give forth the odors of evening. Listen if the animals show signs of fear – if the dog barks – if the owl shrieks – if the birds cease to sing – if the bee ceases its hum – if the butterfly stops its flight – it is said that even the ant pauses with its burden and no longer gives the lesson to the sluggard.”
The young ladies were enthusiastic about the experience and harbored a brave attitude at a time when women were not supposed to be inside scientific circles. At an epoch when men’s colleges rarely engaged science students with direct field experience like this, Mitchell’s students were entering a new era of learning for women. This event represented significant scientific, societal, and pedagogical advancement promoted by a pioneering woman.
Einstein Eclipse (1919 CE)
One of Einstein’s greatest contributions to science was his General Theory of Relativity (GTR), formulated between 1913 and 1916. This revolutionary theory contradicted Newton’s and provided fundamental new understandings of time and space measurement. GTR was difficult to understand though and, in order to be accepted, it was necessary that Einstein’s theory predicted or explained some observed phenomenon that the Newtonian theory could not. Eddington came up with the idea that a total solar eclipse would provide a unique opportunity to quantitatively test Einstein’s theory. How? If it was correct, the light from stars would be bent by the strong gravitational field of the Sun. And what circumstance was necessary to observe this? Totality and stars appearing close-by because the test required several bright stars close to the limb of the Sun during the eclipse. The eclipse of May 29, 1919 CE, offered such conditions.
The path of totality crossed Brazil, in South America, and Principe, an island owned by Portugal, just to the north of the equator and 150 miles from the African coast. In northeastern Brazil, the city of Sobral was the best post of observation of the phenomenon and two expeditions of American and English scientists joined the Brazilians to observe the eclipse.
Their purposes were distinct. The Brazilian commission focused on studies of the solar corona, its form and shape, and performed spectroscopic analysis of its constitution. The English wanted to verify experimentally the consequences of GTR. After analysis of the eclipse results, royal astronomer Frank Dyson announced, in November 1919, that the results confirmed the theory and it was made public: Einstein was right! In fact, what provoked such commotion was precise measurement of the deviation of starlight passing close to the Sun. The value of such deviation agreed with the prediction of Einstein’s GTR (1.75 arc seconds), but was almost double the value predicted by Newton’s gravitational theory (0.87 arc seconds).
This confirmation of the deviation of light is one of the most dramatic events in the history of science. It was front-page news around the globe. The London Times featured the headlines, “Revolution in science. New theory of the universe. Newtonian ideas overthrown” and The Washington Post, with “New theory of space: has no absolute dimensions, nor has time, say Savants.” Although people were still mystified by his theory, his worldwide popularity increased dramatically almost overnight. Einstein was also very charismatic and became famous for his equation E=mc2. The fanfare that followed the eclipse contributed substantially to Einstein’s popularity as a legendary scientist.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Solar Eclipse of 1919 May 29
Eclipse of End of Millennium (1999 CE)
Stories about the end of the world have always frightened people throughout history. An eclipse of the Sun in the last year of the millennium would be the perfect scenario for commotion about this issue. One key ingredient for the August 11, 1999 eclipse was related to the forthcoming millennium, including predictions of catastrophes.
First Eclipses of the Third Millennium (2001 CE)
The first eclipse of the third millennium happened on January 9, 2001. This was a lunar eclipse that was total as viewed from most of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the eastern seaboard of North America. In Nigeria, the eclipse caused great consternation, and its advent was blamed on sinners. In the northeastern part of the country, there were rampages by gangs of youths. Similar destruction occurred in other towns. “The immoral acts committed in these places are responsible for this eclipse,” explained one of the leaders of the riots.
Five months later, on June 21, 2001, the first total solar eclipse of the third millennium was also witnessed in Africa. As the track passed over Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and finally the southern part of the island of Madagascar, thousands of tourists watched the spectacle, along with millions of local inhabitants. Elsewhere much wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanied what was considered the “rooting of the Sun”, from which the world would never recover. The world did recover of course, quite promptly, and here we are waiting for the next meeting between the two celestial bodies in their marvelous space ballet.
Eclipse seen from space (2006 CE)
The image below, obtained from the International Space Station, 230 miles above the planet, was positioned to view the umbral shadow cast by the Moon as it moved between the Sun and Earth during the solar eclipse on March 29, 2006.
the astronaut image captures the umbral shadow across southern Turkey, northern Cyprus, and the Mediterranean Sea.
People living in these regions observed a total solar eclipse in which the Moon completely covered the Sun’s disk.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Solar Eclipse of 2006 Mar 29
Original article: eclipsewise.com