There is no science in this world like physics. Nothing comes close to the precision with which physics enables you to understand the world around you. It’s the laws of physics that allow us to say exactly what time the sun is going to rise. What time the eclipse is going to begin. What time the eclipse is going to end.
—Neil deGrasse Tyson
This double issue is centered around the incredible phenomenon of the “doubleheader” solar eclipse coming soon, specifically on October 14, 2023 and April 8, 2024. October’s eclipse will create “a ring of fire” in the sky from Oregon to Texas. The total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, will darken the skies from Texas to Maine.
How will you celebrate the solar eclipses with your students this academic year? Will you have your students safely view them if you are in the path of where and when they will occur? What creative activities will you have students do to celebrate? The next complete solar eclipse will not occur until 2044, so let’s make time to let your students experience the eclipses in all of their glory.
Have solar eclipses been celebrated throughout time and in different cultures? In what ways have other cultures viewed solar eclipses? Is the science classroom the place to share these views with our students? Most definitely. Different cultural beliefs help us understand how both the thinking and science of solar eclipses has changed through time.
I will be featuring just a few of these cultural views in this editorial, as I am assuming many of them are unknown to the majority of us. If you have students from other countries, be sure to have them share their cultural experiences with solar eclipses. This sharing broadens our understanding and provides for a more inclusive classroom of science learners.
Indigenous People of North America and South America
The Inuit people of the Arctic regions believe the solar eclipse means there is a conflict between the sun and the moon. They see the moon blocking the sun as a symbol of the battle between these two entities.
The Pomo people of California see the solar eclipse as a time where a frog consumes the sun. The people come together to drive away the frog and to bring back the light from the sun from this disruption.
The Diné (Navajo) people believe the solar eclipse is a result of a battle between a celestial bear that tries to devour the sun. The Diné perform ritual dances, singing, and praying during the solar eclipse so the bear releases the sun’s light from its grasp.
In the Andes, the 10-11 million Quechua-speaking people living in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia may believe that a solar eclipse results from creatures like cosmic jaguars and snakes driving away the sun. They perform rituals to drive these predatory creatures away by making loud noises so as to restore the light of the sun.
Indigenous People of Africa
The Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin hold the belief that solar eclipses occur when there is a temporary conflict between the moon and the sun. In order to resolve this conflict, the people may engage in rituals such as prayer.
The Mali people native to Western Africa (Bambara ethnic group) believe the myth that a celestial spider named “Komo” attempts to devour the sun during a solar eclipse. People make noise to drive away “Komo” so as to restore and save the sunlight.
In central Africa, some of the Beta-Pahuin people see the sun and the moon as powerful spirits that are involved in a cosmic battle when a solar eclipse occurs thus causing the darkness.
The Tumbuka ethnic group of Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, see the sun and moon as lovers who come together during a solar eclipse. As a result, harmony and unity occur among these celestial beings.
Indigenous People of Asia
The Celestial Bear exists when it attempts to take a bite out of the sun during the solar eclipse, as believed by the Ainu people of northern Japan. By making loud noises and shouting, the Ainu try to scare off the bear while the solar eclipse is taking place.
In Indonesia, the Hindu people of Borneo believe that the cosmic serpent, Rahu, attempts to swallow the sun. Rahu is a shadow entity representing the eclipse. The people engage in rituals to protect themselves from the negative influence of Rahu.
What is the Scientific Timeline Regarding the Solar Eclipse?
Ancient civilizations, like the Greeks, recorded solar eclipses as far back as the 5th century BCE. Anaxagoras suggested that solar eclipses occurred because of the moon passing between the Earth and the Sun.
During medieval times, Johannes Kepler took a keen interest in solar eclipses. In 1612, with refined telescopic imagery, he correctly described a solar eclipse occurring when the moon’s shadow falls on the Earth.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Edmond Halley predicted solar eclipses during the expeditions he organized and further refined calculations of lunar and solar positions.
In the 1800’s, Maria Mitchell viewed a solar eclipse with her father on Nantucket Island and went on to become what we consider to be the first professional American female astronomer. As a professor at Vassar, she took a group of female Vassar students and traveled 2,000 miles to study the total solar eclipse of July 1878.
In present times, the sophisticated equipment that affords us observations of space have increased our understanding of solar eclipses and allowed us to further develop our explanations of the sun’s behavior.
Solar Eclipses and Science Education
Throughout this discussion of both the cultural and scientific understandings of the solar eclipse, you can see all the potential available for infusing important experiences into your science classroom when we witness this extraordinary event in October and April. Understanding how our knowledge of the solar eclipse has changed over time and the important beliefs of various cultures around the world help students to become even more enthused about the occurrence of the eclipse.
By affording the students the chance to examine this phenomenon through the lens of science and/or other cultures, we bring science to life through the eyes of many different people. We must help our learners to embrace other ways of knowing about scientific events so they can better understand the scientific way of knowing and how it differs from other ways of knowing, such as religion, art, and music. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, the precision of physics is what allows us to know exactly when the sun will rise, set, and when total solar eclipses will occur.
Escape the mandated curriculum to provide your students with the opportunity to experience the solar eclipse safely in the upcoming months. After all, they will be twenty years older before the next total solar eclipse occurs. Don’t you want them to look back on the day they spent in your science classroom exploring this incredible feat of nature?
Ann Haley Mackenzie (email@example.com) is Editor of The Science Teacher.