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.