Sunday, July 19, 2009

The greatest show on earth

Yesterday, Mike in Israel sent me a notice about the total solar eclipse on Wednesday, July 22. It will be the longest eclipse this century, lasting 6 mins and 39 secs and it is one of three eclipses that have happened in consecutive years. In the article he sent me, Mark Blitz was quoted as saying, "...three solar eclipses that would occur on each of three annual calendar dates that introduce the Jewish month of Av for the years 2008, 2009, and 2010. The first eclipse occurred on August 1, 2008. The second solar eclipse is coming up this month — on July 22, 2009, and the third will happen on July 11, 2010. Though these dates vary in our Gregorian calendar, they occur on the same calendar date in the Jewish calendar — Av 1."

(Mary Ann, that's where I got July 11, from next year.)

The Jewish calendar is 28 days long and results in a 13-month year instead of the Gregorian 12-month year, which is why it is possible for the Jewish month of Av to be in July or August.

Although Blitz said that the totality of the eclipse would last 6.6 minutes, the NASA site calculates the totality to be 6 minutes 39 seconds. I'd go with the NASA numbers on that one.

The Jews regard this trinity of eclipses on the same day in their calendar as a omen, perhaps a harbinger of the End of Days. Eclipses were seen in ancient times as a portent of evil, although an eclipse during the 6-year war between the Medes and Lydians in the midst of hostilities was enough to end the war in 585 BC on May 28. The passage of the eclipse was greeted with an immediate end to hostilities and resulted in a peace treaty and a double wedding. According to Wikipedia, "The war is thought to have started because of clashing interests in Anatolia (Turkey); Herodotus (Histories, 1.73-74) claims, however, that some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded."

The Medes were an ancient Persian (modern day Iranian) people and the Scythians were a nomadic people, also Iranian, who were reported to have been beaten by the Amazons. The Lydians were Turks. Looks like there has always been war and rumors of war between the Iranians and the Turks. Too bad there are no longer any ruling families with sons and daughters to marry off and bring about peace. I wonder how the Iranians would feel about marrying off one of Ahmadinejad's children to one of Benjamin Netanyahu's children to seal a peace treaty between Iran and Israel. Probably the way someone would feel about being forced to marry the offspring of, say, Charles Manson, but that's a topic for another time.

The deaths of empresses and kings was thought to cause solar eclipses as the sun mourned for their passage and it caused the death of Emperor Louis of Bavaria, Charlemagne's son, when he was overcome by fear at the disappearance of the sun. Evidently, Louis wasn't as formidable as his father or as strong. He must have been the product of the shallow end of the gene pool.

Christopher Columbus used a lunar eclipse to his advantage to frighten the natives into providing him with food when he scheduled a meeting with the chief for the start of the eclipse and convinced the chief that the gods were angry at his refusal by blotting out the moon's light. A little knowledge is useful in situations like that, as Mark Twain amply proved when one of his characters used a solar eclipse to his benefit in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

In 1560, the announcement of an impending eclipse caused rioting in the streets when nearly the entire population of Paris clogged the streets to go to confession to be ready for the end of the world, so a parish priest announced that the eclipse was to be postponed for two weeks in order for the people to get right with god. I imagine one or two people died of fright waiting in line for confession when the eclipse happened ahead of schedule.

This site details a bit of the mayhem and furor over eclipses, even mentioning the eclipse that Carly Simon mentioned in her pop hit, You're So Vain, about Wayne Newton. The site does not mention the eclipse that helped Dolores Claiborn end the life of her incestuous pedophile husband, though. I would have thought that would have deserved a mention.

An eclipse figured prominently in Homer's Odyssey, occurring on the day Penelope's suitors began last meal and Odysseus returned. Scientists have figured the date to be April 16, 1178 BC, about 12 years before the accepted date of the sack of Troy, which means that historians need to refigure their data since it took Odysseus 20 years to return to Ithaca after he left for the Trojan War in Menelaus's fleet of a thousand ships. It's rather difficult to return home before you've left.

On July 11, 1991, a partial eclipse was visible from Ohio. I stood out in the front yard that day to watch it. What amazed me the most was how the shadows fell on the leaves during the eclipse. Only as much sun as was visible, a fingernail crescent, showed up on the leaves at my feet, a tiny sliver of golden light in the gloom. I was fascinated, but then I am not among the ancients who fear the sun being blotted out temporarily by the passage of the moon between the Earth and the sun nor am I superstitious enough to fall dead of fright because a dragon has devoured the sun. At least the dragon spit it back out again.

According to the soothsayers at, "The central path begins in India's Gulf of Khambhat, formerly known as Cambay, an inlet of the Arabian Sea, at 00:53 UT. Interestingly, this is where in 2002 archaeologists discovered the site of a sunken city with artifacts carbon-dated to more than 9000 years ago, showing that civilisation existed not long after the end of the last Ice Age. Racing inland, the shadow sweeps over the Indian cities of Surat, Indore, Bhopal, Varanasi, and Pata. Travelling across Bhutan, the umbra clips Nepal, Bangladesh, and Burma (Myanmar), before reaching China at 01:05 UT, then working its way across the rest of southern China where the major cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan and Hangzhou stand in its path. As the Moon's shadow reaches the coast, China's largest city, Shanghai, with over 19 million people, experiences a total eclipse lasting 5 minutes at 01:39 UT. Across the East China Sea, the umbra sweeps over Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Iwo Jima, but the greatest eclipse (6 minutes 39 seconds) occurs in the South Pacific at 02:35:19 UT. It then arcs southeast through the Pacific hitting small atolls in the Marshall Islands and Kiribati (Gilbert Islands). The path of totality ends at 04:18 UT as the lunar shadow leaves Earth 3.4 hours after it started its trek across our planet's surface. The 15,200 km long track covers 0.71% of Earth's surface. A partial eclipse is seen from a much larger area covering East Asia, Indonesia, and the South Pacific."

Whatever your take on the more esoteric meaning of the eclipse, one thing is certain, it's the greatest show on earth.

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