Sun Worship

Earlier this month celestial lovers throughout south and central Africa got to enjoy a spectacular solar eclipse that produced a ring of fire as the Moon transversed across the pathway of the Sun. The peculiar occasions when the Earth, Moon and Sun all line up together doesn’t happen too often. Such a rare event has historically been linked with all sorts of predictions and paranormal expectations.

The funniest recording of a solar eclipse is, perhaps, also the earliest record. Occuring in October of the 2137 B.C., two royal astronomers, Ho and Hi, offended the fourth Emperor of China’s Hsia Dynasty,  Chung-K’ang. The eclipse was an unexpected event. The poor astronomers were unprepared to perform the customary rituals that should have taken place. The pair of official stargazers were drunk and failed to launch the traditional arrows and beat out the right rhythm on the gongs and drums so that the Sun could be delivered from the mythical beast that was attempting to devour it.

Convinced that chaos would soon consume the empire, the astronomers were summarily executed as an appeasement sacrifice for their drunken dereliction of duty.  A public record of their death was translated in 1839 by scholars to reveal an amusing verse indicating that, although brutal in enforcing their expectations, the ancient Chinese did have a sense of humor:

“Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi,

Whose fate though sad was visible –

Being hanged because they could not spy

Th’ eclipse which was invisible.”

In November of the year 569 an eclipse was recorded before the birth of the Prophet Mohammad in 570. There are many religious historians who link this eclipse as the moment of Mohammad’s conception. Interestingly enough Mohammed’s son Ibrahim died at the age of two-years-old during the occurrence of a solar eclipse. Mohammed wrote of this event as a sign sent from his God, Allah, of personal condolences. Muslims today still consider eclipses significant religious events. When the recent eclipse occurred mosques throughout Africa had special calls to prayer for safety and deliverance from harm.

Perhaps the most significant solar eclipse in modern history is the one of May, 1919. Commonly called “Einstein’s Eclipse”, it is considered to be the solar eclipse that changed the universe. For more than 200 years scientists had accepted Isaac Newton’s principle that the space of the Universe was as inflexible as mathematical principles.  Einstein set out to challenge this longheld belief. Einstein believed gravity was curved and flexible, affected by the mass of planetary bodies. He proposed that warping of space allowed planets to remain in their orbital paths, gravity distorted by the mass of a celestial body, the greater the mass, the stronger the force, which would result in more bending of light. This was to become known as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

When the 1919 eclipse occurred, British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington led the charge for an experiment to take advantage of the expected eclipse. Eddington traveled to Principe which is in the Gulf of Guinea off of Africa’s western coastline. A horrible thunderstorm threatened to ruin Eddington’s chances but, fortunately, by afternoon the skies had cleared. Eddington’s celestial photographs and measurements were compared with photos and measurements recorded by Andrew  Crommelin at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The findings were announced by Britain’s Royal Society’s Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson. It was announced in London on November 6, 1919 that Newton’s theory had been disproven by Einstein’s new Theory of Relativity.

To make sure that you are ready for the next opportunity to view a solar eclipse, log on to and keep a watch on the countdown clock for eclipses listed under their Sun & Moon tab. It seems we are only about 5 months away from the next big event.  There is a handy search window everyone can use to see if their city or country is going to be in the most fortunate position of being able to see the eclipse.

To view a solar eclipse it is important to wear protective eyewear. A homemade viewbox can also be created called a pinhole camera. All you need is a box with a small hole on one side for light to pass through and project an inverted image of the eclipse on the opposite side.  Below is a video with an example of how to make and use a homemade pinhole camera. One tip: The bigger the box the better the view.




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Alice & Albert

Could it really be that it’s been one hundred years since Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity? The science community refers to Albert so often, I often feel as if he graced this earth just yesterday. But, indeed, November is the one hundred year anniversary of his publication of this theory.

Even though the gringa has heard many times someone say “the theory of relativity”, um, what the heck does it really mean? I mean, how the heck can it be used for something useful or even for something interesting or fun?  Well, this is the basis for all the time-warp fodder for great (or even lousy) literary works of science fiction, which the gringa loves, even the “lousy” ones.

The first time Albert’s theory was successfully put to the test in real life was during the observation of a solar eclipse. A prediction was made, based on the theory, of how much “bended” light would be deflected when a particular star passed near the sun. The theory supposed that the sun’s mass would cause the light of the star to bend. And the prediction, based on Albert’s theory, was spot on.

So? Now what? Thus became the  established phenomena that is known as “gravitational lensing”. Astronomers now know that this appearance of bended light is not an optical illusion but something that actually happens. This allows astronomers a method to delve into galaxies that would otherwise be off limits for research even with humanity’s most powerful telescopes.

One such galaxy that fits this description is commonly called the “Cheshire Cat” galaxy because it’s appearance reminds one of that particular elusive character from the “Alice In Wonderland” story.  What exactly causes the smiley face? Well, the theory explains that these are distant galaxies whose light is stretched and then bent by objects of great mass which are most likely made up of dark matter. Why dark matter? Well, since no large mass objects are visible but the evidence of their presence is there in the bent light, the mass must then exist in the form of  invisible dark matter.

Scientists claim that there are six galaxies that make up the outer space smiley face. Each eye and the nose are individual galaxies and there are four other galaxies that create the arcs which are bent light created by gravitational lensing by some mysterious dark matter object with great mass. Scientists view the “Cheshire Cat” through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The eye galaxies are the brightest and are zipping through space on a collision course with one another at over 300,000 miles per hour. NASA uses the Chandra X-ray Observatory to determine that hot gas, millions of degrees Fahrenheit, is the evidence that these galaxies are indeed colliding. And that’s not all the mayhem that the “Cheshire Cat” is out and about doing. Aside from the bumper car routine,  the cat’s left eye has a very hungry supermassive black hole right at its center which is gobbling up all sorts of things.

Astronomers classify this cluster of galaxies as a fossil group. A fossil group has a dominant elliptical galaxy surrounded by smaller galaxies. Fossil groups are considered to be just one stage that almost all galaxy groups go through as they evolve. Perhaps it’s kind of like the teenage years for galaxies. Horrible driving and collisions and they eat everyone out of house and home.

So, once it grows up a bit, then, what’s the next stage? That would be the Cyclops group, when they merge into one mega-galaxy. Yeah, the gringa thinks that sounds about right. Just like a teenager then develops into  a mature senior who gets a bit fat and needs reading glasses.  But it will probably take a billion years or so. Looks like we will be enjoying the smiley face for a long time to come.

If any of the gringa’s dear readers happen to be passing through Huntsville, Alabama, they can check in at Marshall Space Flight Center. That’s headquarters for the Chandra program that studies the “Cheshire Cat”. Or, even better, if you find yourself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, see if you can take a peek at the cat yourself. That’s where you’ll find The Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory that controls the Chandra program’s science and flight operations.


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