Legends and Mysteries
Probably, we’ve been creating stories to explain mysteries for as long as we’ve been looking at the sky. We use the events and patterns in the sky to explain the reoccurrence of the seasons, honor ancient heroes, and explain disasters.
Scientists accept that legends explained in symbols events we couldn’t understand. Could it be that some of these legends were sparked by natural events, later immortalized in the constellations? Pegasus, for one. When the king of Lycia needed help to control the Chimaera, a monster sometimes considered an incarnation of destructive physical forces such as volcanoes or storms, he called on the hero Bellerophon. Bellerophon conquered the monster, or volcano, with the help of the fabulous winged horse Pegasus. But when Bellerophon arrogantly thought he could fly to Mt. Olympus, home of the gods, Zeus sent a gadfly to sting the horse, and Bellerophon was thrown. On Olympus, Pegasus fetched thunder and lightning (more destructive physical forces) for Zeus. Zeus immortalized him in the stars. The small fire of a volcano known as the Chimaera is still visible out to sea from one of several mountains known in antiquity as Olympus. Over the years scientists have worked towards clearer explanations of mysteries, so that now we expect most natural events, like Spring, to be dependable, not mysterious.
Infrequent happenings force us to reconsider our expectations of a dependable world. Comets have frightened people over the centuries. Their swordshaped blazing tails have been blamed for earthquakes, wars, diseases, two-headed animals, and red rain. Now, with the return of the Stardust Mission capsule from Comet Wilt 2 on January 15, a team including University of Washington astronomer Dr. Donald Brownlee is studying physical realities of comets. Will they be able to prove that the “miraculous” presence on Earth of, not red, but crystal clear, pure water has been brought to us by comets?
A more predictable, and yet still magnificently mysterious, event is an eclipse of the Sun. It occurs when the (almost) invisible Moon crosses in front of the Sun, and night falls in mid-day. The eclipse has been feared as a dragon eating the light, as the gods sending messages of their displeasure with us, and as a good reason for two warring Middle Eastern peoples to stop fighting. It’s also an event of both remarkable coincidences and scientific values: First, the Moon happens to be about 400 times smaller than the Sun, and, second, it happens to be located about 400 times closer to the Earth than the Sun is. This neat proportion means that there is the occasional total eclipse when the New Moon completely covers the same area of the sky that the Sun does. A fraction farther away, a fraction smaller and we’d never see a totality.
The scientific values are multiple. Eclipses have helped scientists determine dates. For example, calculations of their occurrences have helped historians approximate such legends as the Trojan War: The eclipse of 16 April 1178 BCE may be the one Homer refers to in the Odyssey. Likewise, eclipses have helped scientists study the geometry of space.
A predictable event, and yet mysterious? Why? Partly because an eclipse of the Sun is visible from Earth only briefly and only across a narrow path, sometimes mostly ocean. Relatively few people have ever had the chance to see one. But more, because at totality the dramatic appearance of stars in midday amazes even those who have seen it several times and know what it is. Astronomers have gone halfway around the world to look at this mystery. They have braved kidnappings and disease, wars and the scorn of their friends. Using eclipses, they have measured the relative sizes of the Moon and the Sun and spatial distances—thus eclipses have enabled us to send people to the Moon and bring them back. During eclipses, they have looked at the Sun directly without blinding themselves, and so have studied its nature; they have found in the spectrum of the solar prominences an element—helium—unknown before on Earth; they have proved that space-time is relative and that gravity curves light. They have laboriously travelled halfway around the world in order to be present in the path, only for the clouds to obscure the sky. But eclipses have always offered scientists a chance to gather data that could result in a greater understanding of our universe.
My husband Bill and I are caught up in the hope for this chance. We’re planning to visit our family in Istanbul in March, and then to try to see the total eclipse on March 29 as it crosses over the small volcano Chimaera on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. In the noon sky the constellation Pegasus may be flying around the Sun. Does this mean that we will contribute anything to the world’s knowledge of our universe? That’s unlikely. Will we add anything to our own appreciation? Probably yes, of magnificent mystery. And perhaps we’ll create our own legend.