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What’s the Great American Eclipse?

Total Solar eclipse 1999 in France. - By I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0

As Americans across the country get ready to view the upcoming total solar eclipse, it is important to remember that humans didn’t always have the luxury of knowing when the sun suddenly “disappeared” in the middle of the day. Ancient records of eclipses date back centuries from cultures all around the world. In fact, it is believed that the quest to understand this mystifying event is what led to modern astronomy.

From sky wolves to decapitated heads, there is no shortage of ancient myths about both solar and lunar eclipses. For centuries, indigenous people all over the world have tried to explain this seemingly unnatural phenomenon. According to Dr. E.C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, "Most of eclipse lore is based around the concept that there is something attacking the sun or the moon, and people have a role to play in stopping it.”

Despite major advances in science and technology since ancient times, people still assign a religious significance to eclipses. Dr. Krupp is frequently asked if there is a danger to pregnant women—the answer, of course, is no. In 2015, a couple of pastors linked the unusually high number of blood moons and eclipses with the proximity to recent Jewish holidays as evidence of an imminent apocalypse. While astrologers may not assign a religious significance to eclipses, some are quick to point out major events happened on or near a solar eclipse—like the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 and Princess Diana’s death in 1997.

While it may seem like a huge coincidence that some historic events coincide with eclipses, it is essential to remember that day-to-day life does not stop for cosmic events. It would then stand to reason that something significant would eventually occur on a day that happens to document an eclipse. Additionally, it is not clear where people draw the line in associating an event with an eclipse—same day? Same week?

Even if a specific date does not hold particular cosmic significance, it’s worth contextualizing the few solar eclipses that occurred on US soil. Compared to the rest of the world, the US has relatively few documented total solar eclipses. The earliest known case in the US, or more accurately, what would later become the US, appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on April 30, 1752. Even on the eve of the Civil War, the Baltimore Daily Exchange reported on a total solar eclipse that was only visible from the west coast on July 18, 1860. Interestingly, the last time a total solar eclipse spanned across the contiguous states was June 8, 1918. While American soldiers were off fighting in the Great War, citizens on the home front were treated with a view of this unusual cosmic event.

Luckily, the next total solar eclipse is just around the corner for curious eyes across the contiguous United States. On August 21st, National Geographic reminds Americans to keep their eyes safe. Until the moon is completely blocking the sun, it is recommended that viewers use glasses with special filters to view the eclipse so as not to damage their eyes.