Today, we try to understand awe -- by gazing at a
metaphor. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
A friend recently asked,
"John, what about awe in the creative process? Why
don't you speak about awe?" Now there's a word! Awe
is the fear you feel in the presence of that which
is wholly other. Awe is what you would feel in the
presence of God. It's a kind of fear you know when
you're in far over your head. And that's where
creative people live all the time.
I put the question on hold until I found Bryan
Brewer's book on solar eclipses. It says something
about awe. Only ten total eclipses have touched
continental America in this century -- 14 if you
include Hawaii and Alaska. In a total eclipse the
sun is blotted out utterly as the moon passes by.
The width of its path is narrow -- typically 200
miles or less.
A total eclipse touched Boston in 1959. A friend
hired a plane to get a clear photo of it. He made
the cover of Science Magazine. In
1991, one touched Hawaii and Mexico. Another friend
went to Mazatlán to see it. He came back so
affected by the sight that he still loses his
composure telling of it.
A third friend told another story about that same
eclipse. She made pinhole cameras so colleagues in
her organization could watch it pass. Several
refused to do so. They even avoided windows --
afraid to be in the presence of such an aberration.
Brewer speaks of "sudden darkness [that] seems to
bring time and Nature to a quiet halt ... Birds
stop singing. ... Blossoms begin to close ... Bees
become disoriented." Eclipses move silently over
the face of the earth at thousands of miles an
hour. And as they pass, life as we know it is
I've never seen a total eclipse myself. But an
annular eclipse will touch El Paso in 1994. In an
annular eclipse, the moon is too far away to blot
out the whole sun. An annulus of light licks out
around the edge of the moon.
The next total eclipse will march across America in
2017. It'll darken Salem Oregon, Casper, St. Louis,
and Charleston. I'm unlikely to be around, but you
I struggle to understand what it is that only few
have seen. As I do, the word awe takes on shape. So
does a perfect metaphor for the creative moment.
This is a moment when the world as we know it turns
into something else entirely. Milton caught that
thrill of terror in Paradise Lost:
There it is! The creative moment is the
fear of change that perplexes monarchs. But which, I
hope, you are willing to chance.
As when the Sun, new risen, ...
in dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations and with fear of change
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Brewer, B., Eclipse. (2nd ed.) Seattle:
Earth View, 1991.
Milton also touches eclipses in Paradise
Regained. But now they become more ominous:
Handel echoes those words when he tells
about Samson's blindness:
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse
And in the end, of course, Samson's
blindness (and Milton's) held awesome power.
Total eclipse! no sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Pictures from an article about chasing a solar
eclipse all the way to India, a century ago.
(Lockyear, Sir N., The Eclipse Expedition to India.
The Cosmopolitan, December, 1898, pp.
The following website gives some fine modern photos
of solar eclipses http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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