Tuesday September 02, 2014

Lunar eclipse and the pursuit of better answers


Lunar eclipses are not exactly rare occurrences. In fact, in any given year, there will be between two and five. It makes sense that they would be quite common. Like all objects hit by light, the Earth casts a shadow. Since the Moon orbits the Earth it is logical that during some periods in time it will pass into the shadow. As it does so, it is a wonderful celestial show well worth experiencing.

As a very young child, this was one of the first great revelations of science to grip my emerging imagination, that the Moon did not cast its own light, but reflected that of the sun; that when the shadow started to pass across that reflective surface, it was the planet I was standing on blocking the sunlight from reaching that distant rock.

Despite their relative frequency, timing, weather conditions and other factors often conspire to make them difficult or inconvenient to view. That was the case last Monday night/Tuesday morning. Although the evening began with perfectly clear skies, by the time the Earth’s umbra started to make its slow traverse across the Moon’s glowing face there was a haze in the air. The eclipse itself was underwhelming, but, as always, inspiring.

I feel privileged to live in a time and place that we know so much about our celestial neighbourhood and the universe at large; a time and place that common folk like me have the luxury of free time, education and access to information and technology that makes it possible to explore ideas once the domain of an elite few.

That feeling of privilege is perhaps a conceit of foolishness as I had no control of the era or place of my birth and surely future generations will look back on us as being just as primitive as we view those who came before us.

As I watched the haze-muted version of last week’s eclipse, I wondered, as I always do when I am enthralled with nature’s majesty, at what I might have thought viewing such an event thousands of years ago without the benefit of modern science.

I can appreciate how our ancient forebears would have found it unsettling that something as reliable and beneficial as the Moon would begin, without any discernible reason, to slowly turn blood-red as if, as the Incas believed, it was being attacked and devoured by a malicious jaguar. It would have been an affront to the “natural order” of things. And if the big (invisible) cat could do that to the moon, what would stop it from then turning on the Earth and assaulting us too?

I can see how, in these circumstances, we might try to develop strategies to stop these things from happening, such as shaking spears and creating a racket, including beating our dogs to make them howl and bark thus scaring off the predator.

Naturally, the Moon recovers and the attack on Earth does not materialize, meaning, ostensibly, our efforts are effective. Fortunately, some clever individuals start to realize that the repetitive nature of these events might mean they are actually part of the natural order of things and go searching for better explanations.

Better explanations usually prevail over the long term.

At least, I hope that will be true.



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