Days and nights, full moons and new moons, summers and winters—everything we witness pertains to the movement of the Earth, the Moon and other celestial bodies. Solar and Lunar Eclipses also arise out of the same celestial phenomenon, with humans not having any control over it.
Even before history was penned down, humans witnessed eclipses and had obsolete ideas about them. Unfortunately, many of them are still pervasive, even when detailed explanations arising out of the scientific understanding of the physical world are readily available.
‘Battle of Eclipse’ and Busting of the Myth:
The first ever recorded prediction of a Solar Eclipse can be traced back to the sixth century, when Thales of Miletus, the pre-Socratic Greek mathematician and philosopher, predicted a solar eclipse. The eclipse became the reason for the end of a 15-year long war which eventually came to be known as the “Battle of the Eclipse”. On May 28, 585 BC, the battle fought between the Medes of Central Asia and the Lydians, on the bank of the river Halys, now in Central Turkey, was abruptly brought to an end when day suddenly turned into night. It was thought that Gods had grown angry due to their fight. The two sides stopped fighting and peace was thus restored in the troubled area.
Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the incident and claimed that Thales could have predicted the solar eclipse. Unfortunately, the method that Thales of Miletus used for his calculations is not known till date. However, the Greeks celebrate it as one of their scientific and mathematical advancements of ancient times.
What is important is that Thales broke obsolete mythological ideas associated with eclipses. Thales’s calculation and predictions are now thought to have heralded a new beginning, the beginning of a belief that nature can be unpacked by human intellect.
Edmund Halley, the astronomer who predicted the periodicity of the comet Halley, which was then named after him, used Newton’s laws of gravity for the precise prediction of the return of the comet in 1758. He could not live to see it again. Halley predicted a solar eclipse in 1715, using the same laws.
Einstein’s theory of gravity – in which he stated that gravity is not merely the pulling of the objects by the sun, as theorised in Newtonian philosophy, but that the sun bends the curvature of space in the same fashion that a heavy object does a trampoline. Going by his theory, light emerging from other stars that passes by the sun would bend twice as much as the Newtonian theory had earlier predicted. The testing of Einstein’s theory also took the help of a total solar eclipse in the year 1919. Astronomer Edmund Ellington and his team assessed data obtained from the solar eclipse and the results were published in The New York Times. Einstein’s general theory of relativity got primary validation, and was followed by worldwide fame.
Still-Pervasive Myths and their Realities:
Even school text books taught us how a solar eclipse occurs. A quick recollection of those texts will help us remember that a solar eclipse happens, when, in their course of continuous motion, the moon comes in between the Sun and Earth.
One of fervent beliefs is that a total solar eclipse brings harmful rays with it. The sun emits light due to the nuclear fusion in it. At the time of a solar eclipse, the moon comes in between the sun and the earth, thus obstructing light from the sun. Neither the moon nor the Earth undergoes any fundamental change as a result. According to NASA—“During a total solar eclipse when the disk of the moon fully covers the sun, the brilliant corona emits only electromagnetic radiation, though sometimes with a greenish hue. Scientists have studied this radiation for centuries. Being a million times fainter than the light from the sun itself, there is nothing in the coronal light that could cross 150 million kilometers of space, penetrate our dense atmosphere, and cause blindness. However, if you watched the sun before totality, you will catch a glimpse of the brilliant solar surface and this can cause retinal damage, though the typical human instinctual response is to quickly look away before any severe damage has actually occurred.”
Similarly, the idea that a solar eclipse will poison food and cause harm to a pregnant woman and her fetus are also widespread myths without scientific basis of any kind.
Since time immemorial, humans have attributed a natural phenomenon to either be deadly, or linked it to a mythical ghost story. There were attempts made in ancient times to bust these myths and thus lay a solid foundation for the future. Many had to pay dearly in their quest for rationality. We need to choose between claims made by obsolete mythical beliefs or the path of rationality.