Eclipse Myths and Truths

eclipseWe have recently experienced a phenomena that occurs but rarely in the continental United States: a total eclipse of the sun. The last one was in 1979. We will not see another until 2024.

Today, pretty much everyone knows the scientific explanation for a solar eclipse: The moon passes between the sun and the earth, blocking out all but the corona of our closest star. Yet human gut reactions continue to turn their back on dry reason, and people are drawn to ground zero like moths to a flame. Imagine the intense emotions that must have seized people in ancient times, not knowing what was behind this sudden darkening of the sky. Many were likely struck blind from staring. It is easy to see how the blindness, and the phenomena itself, could be interpreted as signs of heavenly judgement and retribution. The ancient Vietnamese believed that a solar eclipse was caused by a giant frog devouring the sun. Ancient Norse cultures blamed wolves. Explanations have run wild down through the centuries.

Myths surrounding the eclipse linger even today. A commonly held superstition is that pregnant women risk danger to their unborn children. Some people fast during a solar eclipse, fearing that any food that is cooked is unsafe to eat. All over the world, there are those who will see the eclipse as an evil omen bringing death and disasters. But is there any truth to those rumors?

C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California, thinks that there is at least some basis for investigation. “If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is always a disruption of the established order.”

The sudden loss of light can be confusing, even to animals. The less intelligent ones are completely fooled. Chickens run into their roosts and nest there to sleep, only to rouse themselves and run out again as the moon’s shadow passes, roosters crowing to announce the second dawn of the day. Dragonflies hide under leaves. Birds in the forests suddenly mute their songs and sheep fall to their knees and close their eyes, just as primitive tribes must have fallen to theirs in terror. So, it’s true — the darkness of totality can deeply affect all living creatures. However, for people, the effect seems to vary a great deal depending on the attitudes of the culture. Not everyone views an eclipse as a bad thing. In America on August 21, 2017, visitors clustered along the path of totality celebrated as if seeing the greatest firework display of their lives.

So, what is the basis for those predictions of doom? There may be a certain logic in terms of food taboos. The sun’s rays play a part in restraining harmful microbes and germs. When the sun is blocked, that can cause bacteria and harmful germs to rise. In some cases, this could possibly affect perishable food items. However, since the blocking of rays also produces a sudden drop in temperature (up to 5 degrees) this might also slow spoilage. It is doubtful there is any substantial danger in eating during an eclipse. A more likely hazard would come from cooking; if someone were cutting meat with a sharp knife and the room went dark, they might accidentally cut themselves.

What about the danger to pregnant women? Medically, there really is no basis. These myths began in ancient times when people viewed a total eclipse with terror and apprehension. Perhaps some were startled enough to miscarry, or to invoke premature labor. No woman today has any reason to fear.

However, there may be some relevance to the disturbance that can be caused in an individual’s magnetic field. When solar radiation to the Earth is blocked by the Moon, the ionization process in the ionosphere is disrupted, as well as the variation of geomagnetic field. During the total solar eclipse on March 9, 2016, from 00:30 until 02:00 UT, researchers found that geomagnetic field variation decreased by -5 nT. What the heck does this mean to you? Well, it depends. Some people may notice nothing at all. Others who are hypersensitive to “vibes” may feel a seemingly sourceless stirring in their electrical circuits; but it’s probably nothing that could cause actual harm.

The biggest danger that comes with the eclipse is for those who stare directly into the sun. Even a few seconds of such viewing can temporarily or permanently burn the center of the retina. Ironically, staring at the sun is safe for the 2 minutes that it is completely covered. But only a fool would eschew NASA-approved glasses during exposure and turn their unprotected eyes to the sky. One can only assume that our incomprehensible president believes himself impervious to the laws of science as well as the laws of the land (see youtube.com/watch?v=kBEJSXdwJ_E ).

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