Like a lot of people in the south, I spent much of yesterday afternoon watching the eclipse. Unlike people who turned to various methods of divination, however — astrology, Bible reading, on and on — I wasn’t trying to parse a message from the cosmos. No. I was thinking about what yesterday demonstrated about the progress of science, and hoping that teachers across the country were taking advantage of it.
Astronomers predicted the path of the moon’s shadow — its location and extent and speed — with extraordinary accuracy. The disc of the moon began to impinge upon the sun exactly when predicted, and it obscured the sun exactly when predicted.
That’s quite the trick, don’t you think? After all, the earth is constantly spinning, and traveling a long arc around the sun, and the moon constantly arcs around the earth. To be able to say exactly when the moon would slide between the earth and sun, and exactly how it would appear from any particular location on the earth, needs for us to know a great many things — the path of the earth around the sun, the speed of the earth’s rotation about its axis, the path of the moon around the earth, the distances separating all the moving parts …
I am sure that thousands of schoolchildren looked up at the sky yesterday and marveled at the sight — and many of them, surely, felt a fierce hunger to understand it all. I hope that when they did they were in the company of good teachers who would encourage them and assure them that the world is a knowable place and not, as in Carl Sagan’s estimable phrase, demon-haunted.
At some time in man’s shadowed, long-ago past, a prehistoric man or woman looked at the night sky and realized that the sky had looked just like this once before and that then, too, the days had been long and warm. Perhaps it was the straight line of Orion’s belt that triggered the memory, or the bent “W” of Cassiopeia. No matter; somebody looked at the sky and thought, “I have seen this before, and at a time like now.” And with that there would have come recognition that there is regularity in the cosmos, a predictability, that the world is not entirely random. The immensity of the thought must have been staggering — and so, too, the difficulty of explaining it to others. What words would one use, when such words had never been needed, when the underlying insight was a paradigm shift in the understanding of reality itself?
The details are lost to us, but it ought to be counted one of the greatest, most fruitful moments in human history.
We know it happened, that the thought was successfully conveyed, for there are ancient observatories on every continent but Antarctica, massive arrangements of stones that point toward the solstices. Understanding that there is regularity in the cosmos, men began to study it and exploit it and predict the seasons. In some cases, the boulders must have been transported for miles, so we know that building the observatories was work of great importance.
On July 4th, 1054 A.D., a star exploded. For about 2-years, there were three great lights in the sky — the sun, the moon, and the supernova. We know this, because Chinese and Arabic astronomers noted it. There are cave pictographs in North– and South America that portray it, as well. When the fire diminished, the remnants of the explosion (still burning) became what is known today as the Crab Nebula. There is only one place on earth where no pictograph of the event has ever been found, where there is no museum or library containing a single scrap of paper to suggest a direct observation of the event — and that place is within the boundaries of the world then governed by the Roman Church.
Then, as now, the guardians of revelation are the enemies of human knowledge and progress, for their authority — their power — relies upon the ignorance of others. If I believed in prayer, I’d be praying that awestruck students inspired by shrewd teachers will continue the work of turning back that darkness.