Is Solar Eclipse a Superstition or a Scientific Phenomenon?

Where were you on July 22, 2009 during the appearance of the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century? Were you in Thailand or China praying in a Buddhist temple with monks who believe solar eclipse is a bad omen caused by a dragon-demon swallowing the Sun.

Where were you on July 22, 2009 during the appearance of the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century? Were you in Thailand or China praying in a Buddhist temple with monks who believe solar eclipse is a bad omen caused by a dragon-demon swallowing the Sun.

Some remain locked indoors engulfed in fear and praying for fortune upon their land while others got out to thrum drums and pots, make loud noise and shot arrows skywards to scare the dragon-demon away.

This mythology is shared among Hindus, Buddhists and other old Southeast Asian Cultures. According to the Chinese Astrologers web protocol ‘Baidu.com’ chances are 95 percent for solar eclipses to lead to violence, turmoil, famine and disaster.

In the ancient Greece, Solar eclipses were as a result of angry gods. In the Bible, it is a manifestation of the God’s mighty power. When Jesus Christ was dying on the cross, a solar eclipse occurred between 12 pm and 3pm.

To other cultures it may mean death of an important figure. For example the death of the Emperor of the Frankish Empire and Prophet Mohammad’s little son Ibrahim during the 5 May 840 total and 27 January 632 annular solar eclipses respectively.

In connection with the latest total solar eclipse, a Mumbai based Astrologer Raj Kumar Sharma has predicted; a terrorist attack and a political leader death in India and United States military attack on Iran among others.

These predications are an obvious likelihood. There has been bad blood between Iran and the USA for at least over the past half-century. USA will not hesitate to act military should Iran decide to resume it’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Last year India experienced a series of terrorists’ attacks. If it was possible in the past, it can happen in the future too.

During battles, eclipses served as portents. Following the 22 January 1879 solar eclipse seen in South Africa, the Zulu warriors killed a British battalion.

These superstitions, if you like, have their roots down deep in the ancient cultural beliefs of many societies that Astronomers, Scientists and Secularists cannot simply downplay. 

Scientifically, solar eclipse is one of the natural wonder phenomenon that its formation can be scientifically explained. Regarding when and where it will occur can also be predicated many years before hand.

The Sun’s diameter is about 400 times the Moon’s diameter and the Sun’s distance from the Earth is about 400 times the Moon’s distance from the earth. The ratio is one, which is Why the Sun and the Moon appear approximately equal in size when seen from the earth.

The Moon orbits the Earth in 8 phases once every 29.5 days and the Earth orbits the Sun.

Those phases are: New Moon, New Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Last Quarter and Crescent. A solar eclipse occurs only when the new moon occurs close to the nodes where the Moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic (region between Earth and Sun).

It is called total solar eclipse when the Moon completely covers the sun. Other types of solar eclipse include: annular, partial and hybrid solar eclipses.

An eclipse online portal ‘mreclipse.com’ predicts a total number of solar eclipses to be 11,898 between 2000 BC and 3000 AD. Of which; 4,200 are partial, 3,956 are annular, 3,173 are total and 569 are hybrid eclipses.

It is not always solar eclipse at New moon because the Moon’s orbit is tilted 5 degrees to Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

As a result, the Moon’s shadow misses the earth as it passes above or below it. At least twice and in rare cases up to five times a year, the geometry lines-up just right to cause the eclipse.

This year, so far we’ve had two solar eclipses and there were five in 1935, which is not expected until 2206. Similarly, it is quite rare to experience 2 total eclipses in a year. Since earth’s creation it has happened only twice and it will happen again in 2057 and 2252.

Total solar eclipse may occur somewhere on Earth every 18 months on average. However, it may take the average 370 years to see two eclipses from one particular place.

In Princeton, New Jersey for instance, total eclipse was last seen in 1478 and it will be seen again in 2079.

Total solar eclipses last 7 min 31 s at most due to high speed of the Moon’s shadow – umbra as it moves from west to east as the Earth’s rotation. Umbra moves at 1,700 km/hr much faster than any given point on the Earth’s surface.

Total solar eclipses exceeding 7 minutes are very rare. It happened on June 30, 1973 but it won’t again until on June 25, 2150. The longest until 5000 AD will occur on July 16, 2186, with a totality of 7 min 29 sec.

In Astronomy, basing on the date and time of any solar eclipse it is possible to predict other eclipses. Solar eclipses have been used to solve scientific puzzles, discover a new chemical element such as Helium in 1868, help in astronomical calculations and study the Sun’s faint corona.

Nevertheless each year, due to tidal acceleration the Moon’s orbit around the Earth distances us by about 3.8 cm. It is expected to increase by 23,500 km in the next 600 million years making it completely impossible for anymore total solar eclipse.

The Author is a Graduate student specializing in Aerospace Systems and Fluid Mechanics at Rochester Institute of Technology in the US.

kbvilson@yahoo.com.

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