It’s the greatest show not quite on Earth. No other celestial spectacular eclipses an eclipse. Logic, or Wikipedia, may tell us it is simply the Moon passing between the Earth and Sun, briefly blocking out the latter’s light. But that knowledge can’t prevent a more primal reaction as we watch our Sun – something so regular and everyday it’s how we define what every day is – doing what it never normally does. It feels deeply wrong. Night gatecrashes day. Time is out of joint.
Eclipses may happen far overhead but they can be powerfully destructive. After the last visible solar eclipse in Europe, in 1999, there were reports of thousands of visits to clinics and calls to helplines and dozens of confirmed cases of solar retinopathy, eye damage caused by watching the eclipse. Some soon recovered, some did not.
Despite all the warnings it’s likely to be a similar story this time round. Whenever there’s a solar eclipse, there are always those without the right protection who still can’t resist taking a peek. The injury list includes several well-known scientists. Although the widespread story that Galileo lost his sight after observing the Sun through his telescope is apocryphal, even the great Isaac Newton managed to blind himself for several days and had disturbed vision for months when, in his early 20s, he thought it was a bright idea to try looking at the Sun in a mirror. It wasn’t.
These days, with apologies to Sir Isaac, there’s an even bigger celebrity Sun-gazing victim. Marge Simpson. In the 2009 episode Gone Maggie Gone, an eclipse in Springfield leaves Marge temporarily blinded. As it is in myriad other ways, Springfield is exceptional when it comes to eclipses: it experienced one a mere 16 years earlier in the classic Marge versus the Monorail (featuring the late Leonard Nimoy) – although it’s estimated that for any given spot on Earth a total solar eclipse only comes round on average once every four centuries or so.
Right across fiction you encounter eclipses far more frequently than in life. In large part that’s down to the visual thrills and hard-to-top twist of day briefly flipping over into night. It makes for a great set piece in Mel Gibson’s underrated 2006 Apocalypto: as the lead character is about to be sacrificed to the Mayan “feathered serpent” deity Kukulkan, the Sun is suddenly blotted out. The priest takes the eclipse as an omen that Kukulkan has had his fill of blood, so our hero is spared. The still awe-inspiring opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey is effectively an eclipse viewed from beyond Earth, and the standout crucifixion scene in religious epic Barabbas was filmed during a real solar eclipse in February 1961.
Ryder Haggard's King Solomon's Mines used an eclipse as a convenient plot device (Credit: Alamy)
But eclipses offer more dramatic possibilities than mere spectacle. Another key aspect of their appeal is our long-held ability to calculate precisely when they’re due. Exactly 300 years ago Sir Edmond Halley, who also predicted the return of the comet that now bears his name, accurately forecast the solar eclipse of 3 May 1715. There are also claims that, spurred on both by centuries of meticulous observations and awareness of the high price of failure (legend tells of “drunk astronomers” Ho and Hi, executed by the emperor in 2136BC for not anticipating the first recorded eclipse), the Chinese began correctly forecasting eclipses as long as 2,000 years ago.
Deception and menace
Being astounding yet entirely predictable has led to a recurring plot device where those who know of an eclipse hoodwink those who don’t. It first appears in Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines in 1885 where, aware a lunar eclipse is imminent, English explorers tell the South African natives they will “cause the moon to be eaten up”. When it begins to disappear, the natives are convinced they are sorcerers and do their bidding. Only four years later Mark Twain tweaked the idea in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In this case the natives are from medieval England and about to burn our American hero at the stake. He also just happens to realise an eclipse is imminent, persuades them it is his doing, and rather than being executed becomes the King’s “perpetual minister and executive”. The same trick has kept popping up ever since in the many adaptations of the novels and a range of other movies, TV shows and books, including the Tintin tale Prisoners of the Sun.
Eclipses were, and in many places still are, seen as bad omens – with assorted accompanying superstitions such as staying indoors if you are pregnant and avoiding cooked food as eclipses can turn it poisonous. So it’s curious that they feature in sci-fi more as deception than direct menace. Given that 1951’s The Day of the Triffids opens with a dazzling meteor shower (“the greatest free firework display ever”) which leaves most of the world blind, and an equally unmissable passing comet turns people into zombies in the more obscure but fun 80s film Night of the Comet, there’s definite room for more stories of eclipses with consequences. The best I’ve got is the initially exhilarating, ultimately exasperating TV series Heroes where, following an eclipse, a group of ordinary people develop special powers. We can definitely improve on that.
In The Day of the Triffids, a meteor shower allows man-eating plants to take over the planet (Credit: Allied Artists Pictures)
I’ve only once had a proper view of a solar eclipse: in 1999 I was at Lake Balaton in Hungary smack in the middle of the zone of totality, the narrow strip where the Moon’s shadow falls (for this latest eclipse, the only land in this zone of totality is Svalbard and the Faroe islands). The location and conditions were near perfect, and as the sun shrank I wanted to stand there mutely gawping at this unnervingly odd sight. Unfortunately since I was there to provide live commentary on it for BBC radio, I had to keep talking for the duration of the eclipse. Not sure how much sense I made.
If you are reading this before 20 March or any future eclipse you can safely observe, then move heaven and Earth not to miss it. As they say at the end of true SF classic The Thing From Another World, “watch the skies…keep watching the skies”.