Ideas & Innovation Optics

Solar Eclipse 2017: Chasing the Great Illusion From Nigeria

For all but two minutes and 40 seconds, Hopkinsville, a city in the United States county of Kentucky, will witness the longest period of a total eclipse of the sun expected to occur on Monday, the 21st of August 2017.

Though a town of 32,000 people, about 100,000 visitors are expected to hop, skip, and jump to that and other areas where the view of the phenomenon will be most obvious. According to TIME, there will be tourists from as many as 16 countries gathering around the band of totality, chasing the experience of how the moon, for a moment, owns the sun.

What is the Eclipse?

An Eclipse of the sun is not necessarily a rare occurrence. You might have experienced it at one point, perhaps in secondary school when asked to look into a bucket of water. On the average, a solar eclipse occurs somewhere on the surface of the earth once every year and a half. It is a rather simple phenomenon based on some natural physical principles: the sun is static, while other bodies, including the earth and the moon, revolve around it even as you are reading this. The technical name for this pattern of location of the heavenly bodies is Heliocentricism, propounded in the 16th century by Nicholas Copernicus and supported by the invention of the Galilean telescope, as against Geocentricism – the earlier assumption.

A total eclipse of the Sun (Source: Independent UK)

If you think of it, the eclipse we see is really a product of our disadvantaged locus, as caused by our distance from space. The sun is 400 times the size of the moon, so the moon cannot really shield the sun. However, given that we on earth are 384,400 km from the earth and the moon is 147million km from the sun, we see an eclipse when the moon stays long enough at the precise point in front of the sun to appear to make it hibernated. This could be total, or partial (annular eclipse).

The moon, at those precious minutes of history and wonder, is still ordinarily doing its boring tedious day job of moving round the sun, but the euphoria is for the world’s eclipse chasers to cherish.

So why is it a big deal?

Yes, a solar eclipse happens every 18 months but rarely does that occur outside of the 70% area of the planet consisting of entirely water. This one, the first since the annular eclipse of February 26th in Argentina, will begin at 9:05am Pacific Time (5:00PM Nigeria), through 14 American states, till 4:06pm; hence it has been dubbed ‘The Great American Eclipse’. Nigeria’s population is about 180 million in total, but those who live within a day’s drive of the 70 mile wide band of totality are about 350 million in number.

Logistical wahala? You can imagine, but this is not Immigration exam at National Stadium Abuja. That organized society have had advance plans in place, from constant on-green traffic lights for surrounding highways and no train noises, to first aid and the provision of guides on how not to purchase fake eclipse sunglasses. Even under a somewhat underwhelming political climate in the era of Trump, thousands are going to be taking the long hours off to witness the few seconds of cosmic magic.

It will be a fleeting moment which may not even be long and safe enough for a few selfies. Why do so much for so little?

“They talk about the big things oh, but then you talk about the small things oh”. Shey life can have a bit more meaning when you realize that something so big and away from you, can happen without your slightest contribution?

National Geographic commenced a live broadcast at about 15 past 7PM Sunday night (3:15am Monday in Nigeria), NASA’s satellites will record the eclipse and many international TV stations will replay it later. But for those few moments, what we will all see is just how small we are in these scheme of things, and how the cosmos really does its thing, absolutely neutral to and unperturbed by our politics, culture wars and identity crises.

For that moment when day becomes total or partial darkness, the heavenly bodies leave the people of the world to themselves to reflect on how often or easily they too change from light to darkness, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, the sun is still static, and the moon and the earth are still only moving around it.

Facts of Numbers and times sourced from the August 21 edition of TIME, pp 16 – 17. | Feature Image from Linda Hall Library

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