1 December 2022

Mask of the Sun, by John Dvorak

Posted by Callan Bentley

Inspired by How The Mountains Grew, I ordered the rest of John Dvorak’s oeuvre recently. I read the first over Thanksgiving break – a great nonfiction look at eclipses. The basics of lunar and solar eclipses are dispensed with early on, and Dvorak then spends his time on understanding of eclipses in antiquity, the gradual accumulation of insight into the causes and timing of eclipses – thus permitting them to be forecast, and how this understanding came part and parcel with newfound scientific insights about the nature of the solar system in general. The influence of eclipses on history and literature is explored next, and the many tales of adventurous travel to go to a place where eclipse observations are to be made, sometimes successfully and just as often ending in failure due to an inopportune cloudy sky. Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, and Christopher Columbus all make appearances, but the most attention is given to the astronomers who made key advances in advancing humanity’s understanding of this amazing phenomenon, and how they cleverly answered questions such as whether there is a planet inside Mercury’s orbit, or what the nature of the corona might be. And because the phenomenon invariably triggers awe and wonder, a fair amount of attention is given to the experiential nature of eclipse viewing, as well as the phenomenology of those few minutes. (There is a particularly hilarious anecdote about Thomas Edison being besieged by chickens coming home to roost in the sudden darkness of a solar eclipse, messing up the experiment he has inadvertently set up in their coop.) Dvorak makes the point that our planet is pretty much unique in the eclipses it experiences. Further, this moment in time is pretty much perfect for solar eclipses, but in the future the Moon will slip further away from Earth, and thus won’t be able to completely “cap” the sun any more. There will be a “last eclipse” someday in the far future – so enjoy them while you can.