Dark Side Of The Moon.

With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect. You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.

It’s a great moment in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court when the hero Hank Morgan convinces the medieval rubes that he rules the skies and is causing the eclipse. I went back and reread it recently because, as you may have heard, there’s an eclipse crossing the continental United States today, albeit well away from Connecticut, and it will be the first total eclipse over Nashville, Tennessee in ninety-nine years. That would be ninety-nine complete passes of the Earth around the Sun.

In human terms that’s a small number, but in solar terms it’s piddling, paltry, a trifle—which makes me think trifle would be a good food for an eclipse party, but that’s another story.

There are two things that fascinate me about astronomy. The first is the, in human terms, enormous spans of time. At the end of its life our sun will have probably shone for almost ten billion years. It’s also so far from us that the light we get has taken eight minutes to get here—and since we’re talking about the speed of light which is a universal constant your mileage never varies.

The other thing is that in spite of those enormous spans of time astronomy is so dynamic. At its maximum the eclipse will last about two minutes and forty seconds. And the night sky, if you know when to look, can be full of surprises. I remember when I was a kid and my father woke me up at about 2am to see a total lunar eclipse. Another night we went out in the bitter December cold and watched the Geminid meteor shower. One year when I was in junior high school there was a partial solar eclipse in late spring. My friends and I left school during it and for several minutes everything had a strange bluish pallor. By the time we got home it was over.

Here’s something else to consider: without the Moon the Earth would probably look a lot like our neighbor Mars. The Moon, formed in a matter of days more than four billion years ago when another planet slammed into Earth, has stabilized the Earth and limited the number of punches it’s gotten from wayward meteors, allowing life to not only develop but survive here. There’s something to think about if you’re under the eclipse.

8 Comments

  1. Gilly Maddison

    Although there is a serious undertone, that comedy skit is hilarious to me – I love it when a nation can laugh at its ridiculous side. That’s why I loved Monty Python so much here in the UK. Brilliant. Hope the eclipse was clearly visible, I haven’t seen TV or newspapers for awhile so I have no idea.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s very astute–“Mr. Show” has been called “the American Monty Python”, something the show’s creators have said is the highest compliment they could get. Anyway the sky was cloudy in the morning but completely clear for the eclipse which was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Pictures of eclipses don’t really do it justice.

      Reply
  2. Ann Koplow

    I missed the eclipse because I’m in Scotland but I’m glad I didn’t miss this post, Chris.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      There’s so much for you to see in Scotland right now I think it’s okay that you missed the eclipse.

      Reply
  3. Red

    We were in the town that will be the epicenter for the eclipse, during our visit to the US last week. It’s mayhem. Hotels were booked for 100 miles around Carbondale, IL! And the same town is the epicenter for the upcoming one in 2024 (or 2022?). I’ve witnessed a couple partial solar, and several partial lunar eclipses. Sad to miss this one.

    I’m amazed how small everything seems from here. We got to see Halley’s Comet during her last visit, while I was at school in the mountains in India. It looked like a tiny stream of light leaking in through a pinprick in the blanket of the night sky.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It seems like the mountains of India would dwarf even Halley’s comet. That is pretty amazing. The sad thing here is how many hotels and towns seemed to be intent on gouging visitors, requiring multi-night stays at highly inflated rates. Yeah, now would be the time to book a hotel room in Carbondale for the next one.

      Reply
  4. Arionis

    I got to see a little over 80% of totality where I was in Mississippi. Didn’t even use glasses, which is why I am now typing this on a Braille keyboard. Nah JK, all my eye problems were created by a detached retina years ago, but “that’s another story.” 🙂

    I remember as a kid in the 80’s driving an hour out to a lake to get away from the city light to see Haley’s comet. For some reason it didn’t seem all that impressive. Years later I was more impressed with the Hale-Bop comet which looked a lot bigger in the sky.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It sounds like that detached retina could be an interesting story, albeit a painful one. Anyway 80% is pretty impressive and you must have noticed a definite change in the light.
      I still kind of regret not seeing Haley’s comet–fun fact: Mark Twain was born when Haley’s comet was in the sky and died seventy-six years later when it returned–but I did see Hale-Bopp and it was really cool. From what I gather North America was not the best place to see Haley’s comet. The best viewing was supposed to be, I think, in Brazil.

      Reply

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