Throwing Shade on the Eclipse

I was thinking of observing stars to verify Einstein's theory of relativity again, but I gotta say, that thing is looking pretty solid at this point.

“I was thinking of observing stars to verify Einstein’s theory of relativity again, but I gotta say, that thing is looking pretty solid at this point.”

The popularization of science has a peculiar balance to strike between developments of genuine scientific importance and events/discoveries that lend themselves to popularity with the general public. It’s difficult to not take full advantage of that general interest in events like a solar eclipse. And for science educators, I can’t blame them for taking a ‘golden’ opportunity to capture the imagination and interest of students with an event like this.

There are, of course, genuine scientific questions to be answered during a solar eclipse (see the XKCD comic’s caption re: Einstein’s theory of relativity). But mostly it’s just a cosmic coincidence where the Sun, Moon, and Earth all line up. The astrology hype-train goes into overdrive when this coincidence is extended to all of the planets being in alignment. It’s something that actually never happens since the planets do not all share the same orbital plane, but they’d more-or-less be in a line together.  Last time was 561 BC, and the next will be in 2854 – so, no need to mark that on your calendars, mere mortals.

Despite the doubt I have cast on the importance of the eclipse (ok, I’ll refrain from further shadow-related puns), there is a different important role for such events outside their current scientific value. It’s plausible that ancient and historical astronomers – the progenitors of our modern-day astronomers – were first drawn to studying the heavens by such events like the solar eclipse. In their quest to understanding the big events or observable phenomena in the sky, they began to uncover the deeper mechanics of the universe. It’s a path that we continue to follow to this day.

So while it is fair for scientists and those with a good general understanding of science to shrug off the eclipse for a lack of scientific importance, the educational opportunities provided and curiosity raised by such events are worth a second look. Just make sure to use a proper solar filter…


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