Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Eclipses Reveal a Comforting Clockwork in Our Chaotic Universe

How clearly can you envision the year 2866? It’s probably a dim view at best; after all, it’s eight and a half centuries distant. It’s as far in the future as the Crusades are in the past. This summer Paris will host the Olympics, which in theory happen every four years; doing the math, we can predict that the games will also take place, or at least ought to take place, in 2864 (“The Games of the CCXLIII Olympiad”). Dare we presume that a U.S. presidential election will also happen in 2864, with 2866 bringing a round of midterm elections?

Over such vast spans of time, our vision is inherently fuzzy. Will humans have colonized the solar system by then, or perhaps even ventured to the stars? Or will climate change, or some other natural or human-made disaster, have rendered our planet uninhabitable? Will killer robots rule the Earth—the “bad” timeline of the Terminator films come to life? Such musings bring to mind the old saying (variously attributed to Yogi Berra or the physicist Niels Bohr): “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

But here’s something we can say about the year 2866:

We know that a total solar eclipse will be visible from New York City on the morning of July 3 of that year. And we can be a good deal more precise than that: We know that the dark part of the moon’s shadow, called the umbra, will begin to sweep across the city beginning at 10:31:26 A.M., with totality lasting exactly two minutes and 43 seconds (and if we specified some particular spot in New York, we could be even more precise). While Manhattan lies fully within the “path of totality,” the ribbon of land (or sea) where the moon completely covers the sun’s face during a total eclipse, Staten Island straddles the southern edge of the path, and many on the island’s south shore will drive—or fly in their hovercars?—to the north shore, to experience a total eclipse rather than a partial one. (That’s assuming that rising sea levels from climate change haven’t inundated the region.) Meanwhile, those elsewhere in the city may also strive to be a little further north, in order to be closer to the “center line” of the path of totality (where totality lasts the longest). The center line will run through the small city of Newburgh, some 60 miles up the Hudson.

Why get excited about solar eclipses? There’s the sheer spectacle, of course; seeing the sun disappear from the sky in the middle of the day is an awe-inspiring sight, even if it no longer comes with the fear that surely gripped our ancestors when such events unfolded in ancient times. For many, the total solar eclipse happening on Monday April 8 of this year will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience—or twice-in-a-lifetime, for those who took in the eclipse in 2017. In fact, it’s likely that some of those who saw that year’s event caught eclipse fever, so to speak; many likely started planning for this April’s event as soon as the sun reappeared from behind the moon seven years ago. (I caught the bug at my first total eclipse in 1991 and feel privileged to have seen four more since then.)

The April 8 eclipse may be one of the most watched celestial events in history. This time, nearly 32 million people live within the path of totality, which will run from southwest to northeast, cutting across Mexico, the U.S. and eastern Canada. The path encompasses cities like Mazatlán, Dallas, Little Rock, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Buffalo, with several major urban centers just at the edge of the path, including San Antonio, Austin, Cincinnati and Montreal.

This April’s event will surpass the 2017 eclipse not only in terms of potential observers but also in duration: Many people along the eclipse path will experience more than four minutes of totality, compared to a maximum of just two and a half minutes back in 2017. (Long enough, perhaps, to enjoy the show equipment-free and snap a few photos.)

Beyond the spectacle, though, is what eclipses represent—a glimpse into the great celestial clockwork ticking away day by day, century by century, usually unnoticed. When we contemplate the future, we peer through a dense fog. Nearby objects can be seen in rough outline, while more distant landscapes are shrouded in mist. But with an eclipse, at least a small portion of the fog lifts. Eclipses reveal the regularity at play in a universe that often feels chaotic.

While a bus or train schedule may disappoint you, an eclipse will not. (The weather might, but that’s another matter.) If I lived in Indianapolis, for example, I’d make sure that by 3 P.M. on April 8, I was sitting comfortably in a lawn chair facing toward the southwest, knowing that the total phase of the eclipse will start at precisely 3:06:05 P.M. and last for three minutes and 50 seconds. Come what may, this we can be sure of.

Hamlet lamented the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—the many events that seem to confront us haphazardly. We can foresee them no better than we can guess next week’s lottery numbers. Eclipses fill a different psychological space. They show us that, even if our human future is impossible to grasp clearly, the sun, moon and Earth follow a schedule. In that, I think, one can find some comfort.

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