Student Opinion: Ekleipsis – The Magic of Eclipses

Image attribution: By ESA/CESAR/Wouter van Reeven, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Emily Jiang

Crowds gathered on April 8, 2024, under the blistering sun, waiting with their hearts in their chests. The energy in the air was sizzling with excitement, and people spoke with hushed voices as if in the presence of some unseen greater force. Slowly, the cloudless sky dimmed. The difference is imperceptible at first; an unsuspecting passerby would probably disregard the change as a trick of the eyes. However, the light slowly faded, and all eyes turned towards the sky, fixated upon our only star, filtered through dark rectangular glasses. The murmurs became louder and louder as the sun transformed into a crescent, its blinding light obscured by the dark moon. Before you know it, midday transforms into twilight. In the moment of a total eclipse, all sense of time is lost; the crowd erupts into cheers, and heart rates and spirits soar. 

The moon is blocking the sun. In simple terms, that is what an eclipse is. Why does this astronomical coincidence capture the imagination of artists and scientists alike? What can we learn about the sun during an eclipse that we cannot learn at other times? After all, does the sun not power our planet every day? 

Most would be surprised by how important eclipses really are. 

Scientific Revelations

Solar eclipses, total eclipses in particular, are rare and are important opportunities for scientists to uncover secrets about the sun and other astronomical theories. So far, they have allowed for many surprising scientific breakthroughs. For example, the 1919 solar eclipse confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Another eclipse introduced the world to the element helium.

Eclipses are also unique because the Sun is usually too bright to study directly, so scientists need an array of cumbersome tools for them to see the periphery of our closest star. In the event of an eclipse, scientists will be able to directly view the Sun’s corona, the Sun’s atmosphere, as the moon obscuring the Sun would still leave its periphery visible. This opportunity also allows civilians to observe the corona, giving more people a chance to contribute to and be involved in scientific discovery. 

Using these images and data, scientists can study how the Sun behaves and how material and energy travel at its surface. The Sun’s corona still has many mysteries that researchers are trying to solve; for example, it is actually magnitudes hotter than the solar surface, which is surprising as the corona is further from the Sun’s core. The corona is also the source of the solar wind, which travels into interplanetary space and reaches 1 million degrees Celsius. Scientists hope to capture high-resolution images of the sun’s corona during the eclipse to understand the physics behind these phenomena. 

This is only one of many revelations that a total eclipse can bring. Perhaps even more exciting are the unexpected outcomes. Seeing that eclipses are so rare, every time they occur, scientists will learn something new. Perhaps this is why everyone is on the edge of their seats for the newest data and discoveries from the eclipse of April 8, 2024. 

Artistic Inspirations

Image attribution: By Howard Russel Butler, Public Domain

For most of human history, travel was not as developed as it is today, and an eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Because of this and the drama that is the blocking out of the seemingly permanent light of the Sun, eclipses captivated past civilizations. Some dreaded divine punishment and others found ways to weave the extraordinary sight into folklore and fairy tales. In Renaissance art, for example, eclipses are often used in portrayals of crucifixions or deaths to reflect anguish and horror. 

Even when astronomy became an established field of science, and celestial movements lost their deterministic powers, eclipses retained their personal and spiritual significance for many. 

For a period of time before imaging technologies were robust enough to capture the nuances of the phenomena, artists played instrumental roles in helping scientists capture and study eclipses. Howard Russel Butler was one of them. Butler believed that eclipses were a subject that had special significance in the absence of metaphors. His collection of paintings on eclipses, ranging from 1918 to 1932, gave scientists and civilians alike a fascinating resource to study eclipses with incredible clarity. 

This transition reflected a clear evolution of eclipses’ significance. Once, their meaning was backed by divinity and supernatural forces. As science evolved, though, the old superstitions melted away, and the eclipse itself took center stage. Nowadays, we do not need higher meanings to be moved by natural phenomena. The event and the experience itself is striking enough. 

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