I just learned that tomorrow we’re going to get a total solar eclipse. Because most people don’t see even one solar eclipse per year, they are worth mentioning whenever they happen. They were an even bigger deal in ancient times, when people didn’t know what caused eclipses, and were terribly upset by them. In Mesopotamia, for example, an eclipse was seen as a sign that the king was going to die, and he might crown a substitute king for a few days, in the hope that the wrath of the gods would fall on him instead. If nothing bad happened before the omens turned good again, they would sacrifice the substitute king as a thank offering to the gods, which also caused the death of the king the omens had predicted in the first place.
At least once, however, the custom backfired. Around in 1639 B.C., King Irra-Imitti of the city of Isin got some bad omens, and responded by putting the crown on the head of his gardener, Enlil-Bani. But things did not go as planned–the real king died because “he had swallowed boiling broth.” (poison?) The lucky king for a day refused to step down and ruled for the next 24 years.
But I’m digressing. It seems that a total solar eclipse is only likely to be visible once in a lifetime, at any given spot. We got one while I lived in Florida, on March 7, 1970. The best place to observe it was a small town named Perry, near Tallahassee. Consequently our planetarium had a bus trip to and from Perry, and I went with my mother. Unfortunately the sky was overcast when we got there, so all I saw was a dark shadow rapidly move across the clouds towards us, and then about three minutes later daylight came just as fast, from the same direction. In other words, the clouds eclipsed the eclipse!
Unfortunately you won’t be able to see this eclipse from the United States. I gather it’s mainly an Arctic show this time; it will be visible from parts of Canada, Russia and northern China. You could also call it a herald for next week’s Beijing Olympics. The National Aeronautics & Space Administration is promising to cover it live on NASA TV, starting at 6 AM EST (11 AM GMT). Or watch the video below to know what to expect, and what to do if you manage to catch the eclipse. See you next month!