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Solar and Lunar Eclipses – Historical Perceptions Essay

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Introduction

In Antiquity, the eclipses of the celestial bodies were endowed with great mystical significance. The observation of the eclipses by the ancient scientists helped to discover the nature of these phenomena and expand the astrophysical horizons perceived by humankind. Although nowadays people no longer mystified by mythological perceptions of the lunar and solar eclipses, their investigation and observation continue to draw tremendous attention both of the professional scientists and the amateur astronomers (Westfall & Sheehan, 2015, p. 1).

With the ability to predict the precise time and place of eclipses, the scientists obtained the opportunity to explore the eclipses more thoroughly and became capable of finding the connections with and the effects of the celestial eclipses on Earth and its natural phenomena. However, even without the in-depth comprehension of the nature of the eclipses, many people around the globe enjoy watching the spectacular scene of the Moon and the Sun being completely or partially hidden in shadows.

The Perception of Eclipses in Ancient times

In the present-day world, people became more knowledgeable, and intelligence has grown since the technologies have evolved through time. The sky is now regarded as an object of studying and investigation. Nevertheless, there were times when “sky was seen as home to capricious divinities who were to be feared and propitiated” (Kochhar, 2009, p. 54).

The ancient astrological perception was rooted in the religion, and the discoveries made by the ancient astronomers were usually linked to the spiritual rituals and customs. Indian religious scriptures, such as Vedic, Buddhist, and Jain texts, written in the third century BCE and earlier, mention some astronomical facts and data (Kochhar, 2009, p. 55). These texts prove that the history of the astronomical explorations began thousands of years ago.

In many ancient cultures, the Sun and the Moon were regarded as gods and the patrons of humanity. People performed the rituals and made sacrifices to propitiate and worship their gods. The Sun and the Moon were the constant followers and bystanders of people’s everyday life. Therefore, the first eclipses observed by people filled them with a great fear.

They believed that eclipses are the demons “swallowing the sun or the moon” (Kochhar, 2009, p. 59). In the ancient people’s imagination, in times of eclipses, the gods became engaged in the battles, and each time the sun or the moon appeared in the sky again was regarded as the proof of their gods’ power. The eclipses also were often perceived as the portents of great sorrows and calamities.

The superstitious beliefs imprinted in the literary and cultural heritage belong to the field of mythology. However, the studies in astronomy continued and progressed since time. The myths became more factual while the “gods” began to be regarded as planets. Astronomy became less mystical and more scientific.

The observation of planets, the Sun and the Moon, allowed the scientists from the antiquity to comprehend the periodic nature of eclipses and planets’ movement and to develop calendars. The collaboration of astronomy and mathematics helped to calculate the planetary orbits and the accurate time and place of the solar and lunar eclipses.

Although the astronomic data in the early literature mixes the facts and the myths together, it still proves that astronomy was of great interest for the people of all times. The sacred texts encouraged and influenced the development of astronomy to a great extent and led to new explorations and the knowledge and understanding of eclipses that people have nowadays.

Solar Eclipse

It was proved by astronomers that “the planes of the Moon’s and Earth’s orbits are almost, but not quite, aligned (the offset is about 5 degrees)” (Lunar and solar eclipses, par. 2). When the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun in the daytime and blocks its view, it is called a solar eclipse. This phenomenon happens few times a year, and it can be observed from particular areas on the planet (Schneider & Arny, 2013).

There can be the total or the partial eclipses, and the partial eclipses happen more often. When a person looks at the Sun and the Moon from the Earth, their sizes look almost the same, although the Sun is much bigger than the Earth’s satellite. The total solar eclipse happens once per nearly three hundred years. Because of the planets’ motion, the eclipse can be observed for merely several minutes from the single location.

The total solar eclipse is important in the solar corona investigations because it allows the scientists to observe the parts and lines that primarily can’t be seen otherwise. The total solar eclipses helped the scientists to explore new “thermodynamic and magnetic properties of coronal structures,” and these explorations made a significance contribution to the understanding of the solar atmosphere (Rifai Habbal et al., 2013, p. 9). The magnificent view of the solar corona during the total eclipses draws the attention of the thousands of amateur astronomers who intentionally arrive in the locations from where it can be seen best.

The solar eclipse observation requires the precautionary measures while looking directly at the Sun. Sunlight is ten thousand times brighter than the moonlight. Looking at the Sun without protection can cause the retinal damage. Usually, the professional telescopes have the filters that allow safe Sun observation.

But when a person doesn’t have professional equipment, it is possible to observe the solar eclipse by using the light filters or camera obscura that projects the image of the Sun. It is possible to make the handmade filter with the used and developed black and white film. Such films have the silver layer protecting the eyes from the light.

Lunar Eclipse

“A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon moves through the Earth’s shadow, thereby blocking sunlight from falling on the Moon” (Haynes & Churchman, 2014, par. 3). The lunar eclipses are the more common phenomena than the solar eclipses, and they usually last for a longer time – about one hour. It happens because the shadow cast by the Earth is more extent than the Moon.

“When a total lunar eclipse is preceded and followed by lunar eclipses that are not total ones, then it is known as an isolated total lunar eclipse” (West, 2012, p. 277). The isolated total lunar eclipses usually occur in groups of two or three. It means that three successive total lunar eclipses can occur and then be separated from another group of the total lunar eclipses by the series of the partial eclipses. The group consisted of the four total lunar eclipses is a rare phenomenon. These eclipses are called tetrads (West, 2012, p. 277).

In the time of the total lunar eclipse, the Moon is painted red. Although one can expect that the shadow would look dark, as normally the shadows do, when the Earth’s shadow covers the Moon completely, it turns red. The reason for it is in the planet’s atmosphere. When the sunlight passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, it filters out, and the human eyes perceive it in the red colors. In the same way, the sunlight is filtered by the atmosphere in the daylight when the sky seems to be blue.

The eclipse is best seen when the sky is clear, and there is no atmospheric haze. Similarly to the solar eclipse, the possibility of observing the lunar eclipse is dependent on the location and longitude. However, “observing a lunar eclipse, unlike a solar eclipse, is safe to do and requires no special observation equipment” (Riddle, 2007, p. 77). But the when observed through a small telescoped, the eclipse is seen in more details.

Eclipse Prediction

The methods of eclipse prediction were known to many scientists from the earliest times of the astronomy development. For example, the scientists of the ancient Babylon established that the eclipses are repeated each 6585 days and 8 hours. They called this cyclic period the Saros. According to Babylonian predictions, the eclipses are repeated in time; however, they occur in the different locations because the Earth is turned to the Sun with its other side. It is observed that the eclipses are repeated in the same places once in about three hundred years (Wepster, 2010).

Nowadays, with the help of the technologies, the scientists calculate the time, location, and the visibility conditions of the eclipses for a long time in future. The scientists also can restore the time and conditions of the eclipses that took place in the past merely using the data described in the literary sources of the antiquity.

For example, Herodotus wrote that there once was a fight between the Lydians and the Medes at the time when the partial solar eclipse occurred. Both of the armies became astonished by the eclipse so that the war came to an end. The historians hesitated in the establishment of the exact time of this fight. However, the astronomical calculations helped to find out that the mentioned by Herodotus eclipse took place on the 28th of May 585 BC.

As for the prediction of the future eclipses, they are of significant importance for the astronomers. The scientists apply various mathematical models and collect data with the newest and the most advanced technologies, satellites, space observatories, etc. (Wepster, 2010). The observations of eclipses help the scientists to explore and make new discoveries. Therefore, when the date and location are known, it is much easier to be prepared and take advantage of the few minutes of the eclipse duration.

Conclusion

Since the earliest times of the humankind existence, the observation of the astronomical objects was of great interest. Since, the Sun and the Moon are the most prominent and the closest to the Earth; their movements were endowed with the significant meanings.

The Sun and the Moon were the characters of the ancient mythology, and the eclipses were regarded as the mystical events. However, the astronomy progressed, and the scientists revealed the true nature of the solar and lunar eclipses. Nowadays, people understand that eclipses are caused by the aligning of the objects’ orbits that provokes shadows casting and creates these spectacular scenes everyone can enjoy.

References

Haynes, M., & Churchman, S. (2014). Observing the sky. Web.

Kochhar, R. (2009). Scriptures, science and mythology: Astronomy in Indian cultures. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, 5(260), 54-61. doi:10.1017/S1743921311002146

(2015).

Riddle, B. (2007). Total lunar eclipse. Science Scope, 30(7), 76-78.

Rifai Habbal, S., Morgan, H., Druckmuller, M., Ding, A., Cooper, J., Daw, A., & Sittler Junior, E. (2013). Probing the fundamental physics of the solar corona with lunar solar occultation observations. Solar Physics, 285(1-2), 9-24. doi:10.1007/s11207-012-0115-5

Schneider, S., & Arny, T. (2013). Explorations: An introduction to astronomy. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education.

Wepster, S. (2010). Between theory and observation: Tobias Mayer’s explorations of lunar motion, 1751-1755. New York, NY: Springer.

West, T. (2012). Isolated total lunar eclipses. Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 122(4), 227-228.

Westfall, J., & Sheehan, W. (2015). Celestial shadows. New York, NY: Springer.

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