Monday, December 20, 2010

Tonight's Lunar Eclipse

Tonight, at 6:38pm Eastern Standard Time the winter solstice will occur. The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's axial tilt is at its farthest away from the Sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. One of the effects of the winter solstice is that it marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It also just so happens that there will be a lunar eclipse tonight as well, which will make tonight an especially eerie evening for folks given to superstition.

One of my favorite stories about lunar eclipses involves Christopher Columbus. He and his crew had been stranded in Jamaica for a few months in 1504. Initially, the natives welcomed him and his crew and provided them with food. At some point, however, the crew stole from the natives and the food shipments stopped. Consulting an almanac he had with him, Columbus noticed the date and the time of an upcoming lunar eclipse. Columbus then requested a meeting the native tribal chief and told him that his god was angry with the local people's treatment of Columbus and his men. Columbus said his god would provide a clear sign of his displeasure by making the rising full Moon appear "inflamed with wrath".

I can almost hear the chief laughing in Columbus' face. Of course, the red moon appeared on schedule, and the natives were both impressed and frightened. They came running from every direction to Columbus' ships laden with provisions, praying to Columbus to intercede with his god on their behalf. Columbus timed the eclipse with his hourglass, and shortly before the totality ended after 48 minutes, he told the frightened indigenous people that they were going to be forgiven. When the moon started to reappear from the shadow of the Earth, he told them that his god had pardoned them.

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