And darkness fell upon the Earth…

posted in: Life and things, Science fact | 0
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Parts of North America experienced a total solar eclipse the other day. You’re forgiven if you didn’t know about it, since it didn’t affect most of the rest of the world. But it was HUGE in the US. Facebook was full of people offering free or cheap eclipse glasses so people could look safely at the sun. There were warnings about what might happen if people underestimated the power of the sunlight, even though it was partially blocked by the moon. Nevertheless, not everybody listened to the advice – or so it seems.

“Judging by spikes of certain Google search terms, it looks like a lot of people may have done what you should never do during the eclipse, and stared right at the Sun. For example, the search term “my eyes hurt” suddenly spiked during the eclipse.” [Source IFL Science]

Solar eclipses used to be times of dread and fear. Lots of people had stories to explain what was going on.

  • In ancient China, it was believed that a solar eclipse occurred when a dragon consumed the sun. To frighten the dragon away and bring back the sun, people would make loud noises by banging drums and pots.
  • In Hindu mythology, it’s believed that during a solar eclipse, the demon Rahu tries to swallow the sun. This is depicted in the story of the churning of the ocean of milk (Samudra Manthan) where Rahu’s head is severed by Lord Vishnu, resulting in the intermittent swallowing of the sun.
  • The ancient Mayans saw eclipses as a moment when a serpent from the underworld would ascend to devour the sun. They conducted rituals and sacrifices to ensure the serpent released the sun.
  • Korean folklore tells of fire dogs or “haetae” that are believed to swallow the sun during an eclipse. People would make loud noises and shoot arrows into the air to scare away the dogs and rescue the sun.
  • Norse mythology tells of two wolves, Skoll and Hati, who chase the sun and moon across the sky. A solar eclipse occurs when one of the wolves catches up to and briefly consumes the sun. This belief has influenced Viking rituals and stories.

These days we know what’s really happening is that for observers on Earth, the moon passes gradually in front of the sun, until at totality, it blocks out the sun’s light for a few minutes. It’s an amazing coincidence that the diameter of the moon at its distance from the Earth almost exactly matches the diameter of the sun.

But just because we know a few facts doesn’t stop some people from coming up with their own ideas. Religious nutters might have been gearing up for the Rapture. But it’s okay. For those of you who missed it on the day of the eclipse, there’s been a reschedule.

Other people had a bit of fun with the stories and rumours. I saw versions of this poster several times with the location names changed to suit.

I love the last one. I kinda sang along.

I also saw this picture shared many, many times.

The one I saw was on a weather website and like so many other folks I was impressed. I had a fleeting moment of doubt because it was supposed to have been taken by the James Webb Space Telescope which is located millions of kilometres from Earth but I trusted the source – simply because it was a weather group, so I shared it. Silly me.

One of my Facebook friends suggested the picture wasn’t real so I went looking. Actually, a moment’s thought will indicate it can’t have been taken by the JWST. As explained above, an eclipse is viewed from Earth and the telescope is millions of kilometres away.

So, what was the source? No it’s not AI. It’s a digital painting by Cathrin Machin based on astrophotography by Sebastian Voltner. Here’s her Instagram account where you can see the picture, and a reel of how she created it.

But let’s get real for a moment. None of this is true. Here’s the REAL answer. It wasn’t a moon at all.

The take-home from this little story? Think about what you’re seeing on the internet, even if you think the source is trustworthy.

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