Introduction To Solar Eclipses

Eclipses are among those few celestial phenomena that cannot go unnoticed even by plants and animals, let alone humans, particularly when it is a total solar eclipse. The partial eclipses of the Sun may go unnoticed, but not so those of the Moon. Eclipses do not last long; they occur all of a sudden, without any warning, and disappear altogether within a few hours leaving the viewer totally bewildered. The disturbance in the regular, clockwork, precise celestial motions of the Moon and the Sun caused by eclipses evoke a feeling of awe--the sense that almighty gods such as the Sun and the Moon can be temporarily overpowered by 'something' akin to celestial 'demons'. It was not the natural occurrences of floods or droughts or earthquakes that were originally thought to be demonic, but the mere evidence of celestial phenomena, such as the unwarranted appearance of a comet, a shower of shooting stars, the retrograde motion of planets and, most dramatic of all, the occurrence of total solar eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. In their desperate attempts to reason out such unusual celestial happenings, it was therefore natural for our primitive ancestors to ascribe anything and everything ominous to irregularities in the heavenly order.

Surely, the human brain is fertile enough to establish what are called statistical correlations between terrestrial disasters and celestial oddities. But statistical correlations are of two kinds: spurious and physical. The physical ones are those that can be explained through a chain of cause and effect relations, and the magnitudes of the claimed effects can be well justified quantitatively. But spurious statistical correlations are those that defy the criterion of quantitative justification, even if they are seemingly connected by a chain of cause and effect relations. This is how a lay person can be fooled--by presenting arguments with very obvious qualitative links between two sets of information or events, without adequate quantitative substantiation.

In the context of eclipses, we shall demonstrate the gross differences between physical and spurious correlations in order to understand not only the phenomenon itself, but also the plausible origin and institutionalisation of certain superstitious practices prevailing over several thousands of years.

We generally tend to opine that with the advent of modern science, many events, otherwise inexplicable, have been successfully explained; the expanding frontiers of our knowledge have pushed all of us into a bewildering world of technological innovations, where the pace of change has accelerated from several decades to years and even months. Unlike in the previous centuries, the parents today have a tough time dealing with the inquisitiveness of their offsprings who are exposed to a wide range of media networks. It is not an easy task to completely break away from the traditions of the older generations; it is equally difficult to assert their validity, particularly when the youngsters are equipped with razor-sharp arguments backed by proper scientific explanations.

Of course, we know that the ordinary high school textbooks give fairly clear cause and effect explanations of eclipses, yet the majority of the people in India still shy away from viewing them. But this is not something that ancient Indians did not know about. Even fifteen hundred years ago, Aryabhata I (499 A.D.), the celebrated Indian astronomer, had clearly stated in the chapter 'Goladhyaya' of his book Aryabhatiya: The shadow of the earth falling on the Moon causes the phenomenon of lunar eclipse and the shadow of the Moon falling on the surface of the earth causes a solar eclipse thereafter, he gives the formula for calculating the time and durations of eclipses. If nothing much has changed in the attitude of the common man towards viewing the eclipses, we had better seek the cause for the perpetuation of this particular irrational tradition in a different perspective, rather than solely blaming the ignorance of the people.

How deep-rooted these eclipse-related superstitions are becomes evident when a special event such as a total solar eclipse hits the headlines of all the newspapers. Unfortunately, and quite regrettably, the general attitude of the mass media in India has remained democratic enough to reflect the majority's viewpoint! This was amply exemplified during the last total solar eclipse of 16 February 1980. When the eclipse became visible over some parts of southern India, Doordarshan felt obliged to telecast a film during those few hours in order to encourage the viewers to stay indoors. The streets of the big metropolitan cities in India appeared deserted, not because of their inhabitants' mission of viewing the total solar eclipse in its narrow belt of totality, but primarily because of the age-old taboo on viewing eclipses directly. Remember that the above-mentioned total solar eclipse embraced the Indian subcontinent after a long pause of 82 years!


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