There will be a Solar Eclipse early on the morning of Wednesday 14th November (less than 1 week away). The path of totality will begin at sunrise in the north of Australia in Arnhem Land and cross Cape York to near Cairns before moving out into the Pacific. For the rest of Australia outside the path of totality the eclipse will be seen as a partial eclipse of the Sun in the early morning or at sunrise. In Sydney the eclipse begins at 7.07am and ends at 9.04am. Mid-eclipse is at 8.03am when 67% of the Sun’s disk will be covered. At that time the Sun will be 27 degrees above the eastern horizon. More details here.
(Don’t stare at the sun, kids! Suitable ‘eclipse glasses’ are available locally from reputable astronomy shops and the Sydney Observatory.)
One of my favourite pieces of science writing is called “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard, from her book Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. Here are a few highlights.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountain tops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. …
I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon – if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing – then I doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.) It did not look like a dragon, although it looked more like a dragon than the moon. It looked like a lens cover, or the lid of a pot. It materialized out of thin air – black, and flat, and sliding, outlined in flame. …
The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn? …
When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: we all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car; we saw the other people streaming down the hillsides; we joined the highway traffic and drove away.
We never looked back. … One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
Dillard writes as a layperson, not as a scientist. I can’t think of any scientist whose writing so deeply conveys the raw impact of an encounter with the cosmos. This passage reminds me of some of my favourite fiction; from C. S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces”, which retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Then the stillness broke.
The great voice, which rose up from somewhere close to the light, went through my whole body in such a swift wave of terror that it blotted out even the pain in my arm. It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things. And after — barely after — the strong soaring of its incomprehensible speech, came the sound of weeping. I think (if those old words have a meaning) my heart broke then. But neither the immortal sound nor the tears of her who wept lasted for more than two heartbeats. Heartbeats, I say; but I think my heart did not beat till they were over.
A great flash laid the valley bare to my eyes. Then it thundered as if the sky broke in two, straight above my head. Lightnings, thick-following one another, pricked the valley, left, right, near and far, everywhere. Each flash showed falling trees; the imagined pillars of Psyche’s house were going down. They seemed to fall silently, for the thunder hid their crashing. But there was another noise it could not hide. Somewhere away on my left the walls of the Mountain itself were breaking. I saw (or I thought I saw) fragments of rock hurled about and striking on other rocks and rising into the air again like a child’s ball that bounces. …
There came as if it were a lightning that endured. That is, the look of it was the look of lightning, pale, dazzling, without warmth or comfort, showing each smallest thing with fierce distinctness, but it did not go away. This great light stood over me as still as a candle burning in a curtained and shuttered room. In the center of the light was something like a man. It is strange that I cannot tell you its size. Its face was far above me, yet memory does not show the shape as a giant’s. And I do not know whether it stood, or seemed to stand, on the far side of the water or on the water itself.
Though this light stood motionless, my glimpse of the face was as swift as a true flash of lightning. I could not bear it for longer. Not my eyes only, but my heart and blood and very brain were too weak for that. A monster – the Shadowbrute that I and all Glome had imagined – would have subdued me less than the beauty this face wore. And I think anger (what men call anger) would have been more supportable than the passionless and measureless rejection with which it looked upon me. Though my body crouched where I could almost have touched his feet, his eyes seemed to send me from him to an endless distance. He rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been …
The thunder had ceased, I think, the moment the still light came. There was great silence when the god spoke to me. And as there was no anger (what men call anger) in his face, so there was none in his voice. It was unmoved and sweet; like a bird singing on the branch above a hanged man.
“Now Psyche goes out in exile. Now she must hunger and thirst and tread hard roads. Those against whom I cannot fight must do their will upon her. You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche.”
The voice and the light both ended together as if one knife had cut them short.
Both Dillard’s and Lewis’ prose have a quality that is difficult to capture in words; they glimpse the numinous. Rudolph Otto‘s “The Idea of the Holy” is the classic work on this idea, which is difficult to define succinctly. He reaches for a latin phrase ‘mysterium tremendum‘, which translates as “mystery that repels” or “overwhelming mystery.” Otto writes in German, and his translator has to reach for familiar English words that don’t quite do the job – dread, majesty, fear, awe, eerie, wholly other, unworthiness, trembling, wonder, reverence - because the numinous is not simply an ordinary feeling intensified. Otto says,
… we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up form the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of–whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.
… In contrast to the overpowering of which we are conscious as an object over against the self, there is the feeling of one’s own abasement, of being but dust and ashes and nothingness. And this forms the numinous raw material for the feeling of religious humility.
… [Quoting William James] “The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that HE was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.” … [Quoting another's experience] “For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exaltation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra, when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony, that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards and almost bursting with its own emotion.”
The numinous, I think, goes some way to explaining why the supernatural features so heavily in horror films. And, perhaps, why people watch horror films at all. It is a rather strange fact that people will pay money to spend two hours watching a film designed only to produce an otherworldly fear. Lewis himself attempts to define numinous as follows:
Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
Otto’s primary motivation is to trace the numinous through religious and literary traditions. Science, too, can reach for the numinous. Einstein said that “cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research”, and Carl Sagan discusses the concept in Contact: “I think all of science elicits that sense of awe”. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar‘s wonderful book Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science says,
In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, discovered by the New Zealand mathematician, Roy Kerr, provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This shuddering before the beautiful, this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound. … [Quoting Heisenberg, quoting Plato] “The soul is awestricken and shudders at the sight of the beautiful, for it feels that something is evoked in it that was not imparted to it from without by the senses, but has always been already laid down there in the deeply unconscious region.”
Is there a lesson here for scientists, as they attempt to convey the results of their research to the public? Astronomers generally aren’t keen the following poem by Walt Whitman,
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Whitman could been interpreted as complaining that trying to understand the stars is boring; they should simply be admired from time to time, but not questioned and examined. This just seems like a failure of curiosity - how could anyone, looking up at the night sky, not wonder at the what, where, and how of the stars?
And yet, maybe Whitman was on to something. Dillard’s account of the eclipse has a quality that it is difficult to imagine finding in any mathematical treatment of solar-system dynamics. Perhaps the translation from mathematics to what-it-would-feel-like is simply too difficult, the wonder of the universe being lost behind the necessary but numbing facade of numbers. At the moment, my research is asking whether the combined force of exploding stars, launching a few thousand trillion trillion tons of matter at 40 million kilometers per hour can carry sufficient neutral gas out to 1 million light years (10 million trillion kilometers) from the galaxy to account for observations of the universe 10 billion light years away. (Almost a trillion trillion kilometers, if you’re interested). The numbers surely fail to capture the almost unimaginable majesty of watching such a scene unfold.
Even good popular accounts of the cosmos rarely rise to above the level of quite interesting. Perhaps that is because an eclipse is a rare example where humanity can feel, directly if fleetingly, “the universe about which we have read so much”. Perhaps the numinous cannot simply be summoned at will.
If nothing else, Dillard’s superb prose should remind astronomers of their need for writers and poets. Indeed, the relationship is symbiotic.
It is my view that man’s unguided imagination could never have chanced on such a structure as I have put before you. No literary genius could have invented a story one-hundredth part as fantastic as the sober facts that have been unearthed by astronomical science. You need only compare our inquiry into the nature of the Universe with the tales of such acknowledged masters as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to see that fact outweighs fiction by an enormous margin. (Fred Hoyle, The Nature of the Universe, 1950)