I hate eclipses. OK, no. I’m eclipse indifferent — which to the countless aficionados hoofing it to Casper, WY next week, is probably worse.
Hotel rooms in Carbondale, IL, Clayton, GA, and other towns in the swath of eclipse totality have been sold out for years. In the rest of the country, where the Moon will hide only a narrow sliver of Sun, specialty stores are selling out of eclipse sunglasses. People are planning eclipse-watching parties and pinning moon-and-sun tablescapes on Pinterest. Hipster bars are crafting eclipse-themed cocktails like “the Solar Flare” or “the Bonnie Tyler” (an homage to her hit song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”), with organic Meyer lemon and moonshine brewed by a guy with a foot-long beard and a tattoo of an astrolabe.
I don’t begrudge Carbondale the bump in tourist dollars, nor astrophysicists their ten minutes of NPR fame. But let’s be honest: Eclipses are the Thanksgiving turkey of scientific phenomena. They induce panic and obsessive preparation; they’re an excuse to get tipsy on a weekday afternoon; and I bet you a Bonnie Tyler that Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t inspire anyone to become the next James Beard, any more than the solar eclipse will inspire anyone over age twelve to become an astronomer.
We physicists spend our days poking around under the hood of the Universe, trying to understand why light slants when it passes from air to water, why stars have different colors, why once in a great while the Sun seems to go dark for a couple of minutes on some parts of the Earth. We’ve gathered explanations for all of these phenomena — and the explanation for the latter is, from a scientific perspective, definitely the least exhilarating.
Say you’re at the movies for the latest Idris Elba flick. A tall man with a mop of curls shows up late and makes his clumsy way across the aisle. There is a moment — the eclipse — when Curly’s head totally occludes a beaming Idris. For some moments you can’t see Idris’s radiance at all. Are you annoyed? Of course. Mildly discomfited? Sure. Weeping tears of wonder? Didn’t think so.
And don’t tell me that uncovering why something happens turns it from foie gras to SPAM. You can make a little disc of superconductor levitate over a magnet. That’s pretty cool. When you find out that it hovers because subsubsubmicroscopic particles have stretched their fine tendrils into a thing you can see and hold in your hand, it’s even cooler.
Maybe it’s a matter of taste. Eclipses are a peculiarity of the Moon-and-Sun combo we have here on Earth; most planets don’t have eclipses at all. They’re a big, cosmic coincidence, and physicists don’t find coincidences too terribly interesting. “Never” and “always” are our words of wonder. “On occasion” and “sometimes” mean we have a lot more digging to do.
We spend lifetimes dreaming up beautiful absolutes. Kepler, for example, found that the six planets known in his day have orbits that follow a very special rule, which involves the inscription and circumscription of Platonic solids into spheres. Never mind the details. Kepler saw an idea too lovely to be false: divine order in the solar system, God’s hand directing the movement of planets.
But Beauty isn’t Truth. (Sorry, Keats.) Kepler was right…within the bounds of the data available. Neptune, decidedly unPlatonic, was discovered some 200 years after he died. Then came Pluto, and hundreds of other planets orbiting other stars. Scientists had to accept that Platonic solids don’t explain planetary physics, just as we have reconciled ourselves to the fact that eclipses happen on our little planet because of geometry and mechanics — though angry gods and Sun-eating dogs seem vastly more satisfying. Truth trumps Beauty in science (if not in politics).
Still, beautiful and true ideas are all around you. I think my taste aligns with Kepler’s: beautiful ideas are at once simple and just outside your reach. They’re true ideas that don’t quite make sense. Like quantum mechanics, with its wave-and-particle here-and-thereness. Like Einstein’s relativity, which says spacetime is not a grid, but a medium. Stars and black holes swim through it like fish, leaving eddies and ripples in their wake.
So go ahead, buy your weirdo glasses. Drive to Carbondale for two minutes of twilight. But if August 21st’s geometry demo leaves you feeling like you want dessert but there’s no ice cream in the fridge — join me for a Bonnie Tyler. I’ll tell you why relativity doubles the distant stars.
A theoretical physicist and former NYU postdoc, Sophia Domokos is managing editor of the Cooper Square Review. She is somewhat less ornery than this piece may indicate.