Since death and taxes are the only sure things in this life, it falls to the individual to come up with a compelling To Do list to fill the brief measure of time between cradle and grave. The list may include such obvious entries as: find a lifelong companion, get a good career, and change the oil every 3,000 miles. A less obvious entry, but one that belongs very high up, should be: witness a total solar eclipse, such as the one that will sweep over the Caribbean for a respectable four minutes on February 26, 1998. In 1991, I stood under the shadow of the moon for almost seven minutes, aboard a ship in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. You want this kind of experience. Trust me.Although eclipses helped confirm Einstein’s theory of relativity, scientists no longer rely on them for much new knowledge. Satellites can get most solar data better and faster than can eclipse expeditions, which scientists had to organize to obtain such information during the early part of this century. What eclipses still can do, however, is fill us with the kind of wonder that sparks a scientific interest in the first place. Besides, it’s a hell of a show.
On July 8, 1991, having made arrangements a year or so in advance, about 1,300 professional and amateur astronomers boarded the cruise ship Viking Serenade in Los Angeles. We set sail for the sliver of sea between the Baja Peninsula and the rest of Mexico, one of the prime locations for the solar eclipse that would be visible, weather permitting, three days later in a narrow band stretching from Hawaii to Brazil. We did this despite the comments of one Jess Arais, who told the New York Times he planned to watch the eclipse on television from the comfort of his home in San Jos Viego, Mexico. “It’s a little crazy for the gringos to come so far to sweat,” Arais said. “They have much better televisions than we do.”
Nevertheless, we wanted to see for ourselves what people have always fussed about whenever the moon gets between the earth and the sun. “Most ancient peoples were alarmed by the occurrence of an eclipse,” E. C. Krupp, the director of Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory, told us on the Serenade. “They were anxious about what the eclipse might mean.”
“Eclipse” is a Greek word, its root meaning omission or abandonment. People certainly used to behave during eclipses as if they were being abandoned by their gods. Krupp, who researched the subject for his book Echoes of the Ancient Skies, described the reaction-as recorded by sixteenth-century Aztecs-to an eclipse visible from Mexico. There was “a tumult and disorder, all were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. There was a weeping. The common folk raised a cry lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out, shrieking,” while in the temples chants were sung. Furthermore, “people with light complexion were slain. All offered their blood.” A warning was given that “if the eclipse of the sun is complete, it will be dark forever. The demons of darkness will come down, they will eat men.”
I would discover that eclipse watching still induces a frisson of fear. I blame some evolutionarily grounded hard-wiring that bypassed my scientifically informed brain and told my body that something highly unusual and maybe even dangerous was going on. Eyewitness accounts of animal behavior during eclipses describe other creatures, too, as seeming upset. These astronomical events have probably been creating havoc for millions of years.