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CNY Astronomy Experts Reflect on History, Science of Monday's Solar Eclipse

Fred Espenak
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Central New Yorkers will be joining others from across the state and country Monday to catch a glimpse of a total solar eclipse.  Science shows the rare celestial event is part coincidence, but it was often misunderstood in ancient times.

Imagine you lived thousands of years ago, knew nothing of the planets and solar system, and the sun suddenly disappeared for a few minutes.  Cornell Astronomy Professor Phil Nicholson says it would be a surprise.

"The fact that a few Greek astronomers in their ivory tower or library knew how to do this...I don't think this got disseminated very much to the general public, so there was probably a small number of relatively well-educated people who understood this was a predictable phenomenon.  But to most of the public, it was a sudden shock when it happened."

And when it did, Nicholson says, eclipses were often seen as a bad omen.

"They were often associated with the deaths of kings or emperors, or an oncoming war, or maybe the loss of a major battle.  You see this repeatedly in Greek history."

Credit NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio /
A visualization of the Aug. 21 eclipse.

But today, thanks to millenia of study and research, we all have a better understanding of just how and why eclipses happen.  That certainly doesn’t mean people are any less captivated…as we’ve heard, millions have flocked to “the path of totality” or prime viewing locations across the nation.  Le Moyne College Professor George Coyne says if you consider all of the factors, a total eclipse is quite remarkable.

"It's really coincidental that the sun and the moon are the same apparent size in sky.  If they were not, you would not have an eclipse," Coyne said.

Cornell Professor Nicholson agrees:

"That's just a cosmic accident that has to do with the size of the moon and the sun, and how far away each of them is from us."

Professor Coyne explains further:

"The orbit of the moon is tilted by approximately five degrees to the orbit of the earth about the sun.  So, we're not always along the line of sight between the moon and the sun.  That's why we don't get an eclipse every month because sometimes the moon is above this line of sight, sometimes it's below it."

In the Syracuse area, the sun will be obscured about 70 to 75 percent.  The eclipse will begin a little after one, and conclude just before four, with maximum coverage at 2:38.   

The Fayetteville Free Library is hosting a watch party Monday to help learn about science.  The MOST is planning hands-on eclipse-related activities and demonstrations starting at 12:30, including kids’ activities.  Syracuse University will host a gathering on celestial mechanics starting at 11:00 in the physics building.

More information from NASA on the eclipse can be found here.

Credit Goddard Science Visualization Studio /

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at