Science

solar eclipse, total solar eclipse, solar eclipse 2008
AP/Ilnar Salakhiev
A total solar eclipse viewed from Novosibirsk, Russia, Aug. 1, 2008.

Solar Eclipse Generates Excitement, Trepidation

July 21, 2009 07:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
Tonight’s solar eclipse across parts of Asia is drawing thousands of tourists and scientists, but it is also stirring up fears based on ancient superstitions.

Longest Solar Eclipse of the 21st Century

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On July 22 (July 21 in the U.S.), the longest total solar eclipse that will occur this century will be visible in Asia, stretching across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and some Japanese Islands. For the millions of people along its path, the eclipse will last approximately five minutes; at its peak over the Pacific Ocean, it will last six minutes and 39 seconds.
Thousands of tourists are traveling to Shanghai and other places along the path of the eclipse, which, due to the massive populations and India and China, is expected to be the most viewed eclipse ever. Scientists are also traveling to Asia to study the eclipse, specifically the corona, the sun’s outermost layer.

Solar eclipses are “a time to expand our knowledge of the universe,” writes International Herald Tribune contributor Saswato R. Das, who explains that astronomer Arthur Eddington tested successfully tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity during a 1919 eclipse.

Not everybody is looking forward to the eclipse, however. Agence France-Presse reports that some astrologers are predicting that the eclipse will bring “violence and turmoil across the world.”

Background: Solar eclipse superstitions

In many cultures, eclipses are bad omens, often caused by demons, angry gods or some terrifying force. The Vikings, for example, believed that eclipses were caused when the sun or moon was caught by the two giant wolves that chase them.

Eclipses have been known to produce panic and violence in parts of the world where superstitions are strong or where the science of eclipses is not well understood. In 2001, a lunar eclipse in Nigeria triggered an riot when Muslim youths, believing the eclipse was caused by sin, attacked hotels and bars frequented by Christians.

Here is a look at the traditions and superstitions surrounding eclipses in China and India, where Wednesday’s eclipse will be visible.

India
In Hindu mythology, eclipses are caused by Rahu and Ketu, the head and tail of a demon that “is said to wreak vengeance” on the sun and moon, according to the Sanskrit Religions Institute.

The solar eclipse, which occurs when Rahu swallows the sun, creates fear and panic for some Indians. Pregnant women do not go outside for fear of having a baby that is blind or has a cleft lip, and they do not work with sharp objects for fear of mutilating their baby.

The Hindu’s Dennis Marcus Mathew described the reactions of people in the Indian city of Hyderabad during a partial eclipse in 2005. Many people, he said, left work early to return home, where they remained during the two-hour eclipse. Many refused to eat, and women threw away cooked food.

“Pregnant women too were tense, sitting tight for fear of hurting their babies,” he wrote. “Some grandmas prevented them from scratching too for the fear that the newborn would have scars!”

Ancient China

The earliest accounts of solar eclipses come from ancient China. According to a popular legend described by Catholic University physics professor Sten Odenwald, on Oct. 22, 2134 B.C., there was a total solar eclipse. Hsi and Ho, two astrologers who worked for Emperor Chung K'ang, failed to predict the event and were beheaded.

The ancient Chinese believed that an eclipse was caused by a dragon swallowing the sun. “If they knew an eclipse was coming,” writes the BBC, “the Chinese would shoot fireworks and bang gongs to scare it away.”

Reference: Solar eclipses

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, blocking the sun’s light and casting a shadow on the Earth that “races at some 1,400 miles an hour (2,250 kilometers an hour) along a line called the path of totality,” explains National Geographic.

People within the path of totality, usually about 100 miles wide and never more than 167 miles, can see a total eclipse, where all but the corona is blocked out by the moon’s shadow, the umbra. This is due to a “strange coincidence,” explains the Exploratorium. Though the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, the moon is 400 times closer to the Earth, so they appear to be the same since to someone watching in the path of totality.

The Exploratorium, a science museum at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, provides Web casts of seven total eclipses since 1998 and offers tips on how to watch one.
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