Solar eclipses have been important to science

Solar eclipses have been happening since the moon was formed, of course, (and there is still some debate on how that happened) but there is still something special about them, even if you are not in the path of “totality” (unfortunately for this eclipse we are not in the path of totality here in northern New York).

Partial solar eclipses of course are cool, but they don’t quite compare to a total solar eclipse. Historically solar eclipses have been important for many things, even beyond predicting the Emperor’s future (yes they were used for that in some cultures). Our first scientific explanation of solar eclipses came from a mathematician named Johannes Kepler in 1605, but since then they have been used as an observational tool.

It was during a solar eclipse in 1868 that the element helium was discovered. A French astronomer named Jules Janssen studied a solar eclipse with a spectrometer (a tool which can measure different energies of light) and he discovered that the corona of the Sun was made up of gases, the most prominent of which is helium. During another solar eclipse a “new” element was discovered, however it was later determined that the “new” element was actually Iron.

In 1916 Einstein published his theory of General Relativity as it is known now. It was an important work which was over 10 years in the making (he had his so called “miraculous” year in 1905 in which he had published several papers, some of which would go on to form new fields of physics, in that year he published the predecessor to General Relativity which is referred to as Special Relativity). But what is often ignored about this is that just three years after the publication of General Relativity, an eclipse helped to bring observational proof of it. Sir Arthur Eddington waited for a total solar eclipse (and endured some terrible weather) in order to take pictures of stars near to the sun. From these pictures he was able to show that a key prediction of General Relativity was true, that mass (in this case the Sun’s mass) can bend light.

So solar eclipses have been great observational tools for science, of course they can also be pretty nice just to look at. Even if you don’t plan to be in the path of totality on Aug. 21 you can at least see a partial solar eclipse, just break out those eclipse glasses!


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today