Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 761:
SOLAR ECLIPSE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 761.

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 briefly altered.

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 might be.

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:

As when the Sun, new risen, ...
in dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs.
There it is! The creative moment is the fear of change that perplexes monarchs. But which, I hope, you are willing to chance.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Brewer, B., Eclipse. (2nd ed.) Seattle: Earth View, 1991.

Milton also touches eclipses in Paradise Regained. But now they become more ominous:

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse
Handel echoes those words when he tells about Samson's blindness:
Total eclipse! no sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
And in the end, of course, Samson's blindness (and Milton's) held awesome power.


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. 135-144.)

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. Lienhard.

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