Opinion: Science prepared us to witness the eclipse. Why do we feel estranged by it?

April 8, 2024

One hundred thousand years ago, you live in a small tribe preparing for the day’s hunt when suddenly a shadow crosses the sun, and all goes dark. For long terrifying minutes you ask yourselves: Is this the end? How can we survive? What will we eat? The sun returns, but the terror remains: What did we do to provoke the wrath of the gods?

The same location, 5,000 years ago, another tribe, another eclipse. But this time, an elder recalls a story she heard as a child about “a short day and a short night.” She announces that it has happened again, but that the sun will return. The tribe is humbled, and residents engage in ritual activities to welcome it back and ask that it may stay.

Fast forward another 4,000 years. This time, the community is better prepared. Its shaman, one of a long line of shamans, has warned about an eclipse, after tracking solar cycles and phases of the moon. It is now a predictable, “normal” natural phenomenon, and the shaman’s prestige is enhanced.

And now we’re in the dawn of a new millennium. The job of predicting and explaining the movements of the moon, stars, tides and the threat of pandemics has been passed on to scientists. These experts have gone from strength to strength, observing the world, developing debatable explanations for what we see, and then actually debating them, until it’s possible to choose the better explanations when they can be tested with an experiment or a predicted observation. The scientists taught us how to fly, how to share thoughts across the world instantaneously, how to feed billions of people and even how to visit the moon that blocked that sun. Notably, because of a prediction of Einstein’s General Relativity that was tested using another total eclipse a hundred years ago, the work of scientists helps us locate ourselves anywhere on Earth with GPS.

So on Monday, when an eclipse arrived, not only was it not an occasion of fear, it was an opportunity to use a full panoply of these products of science to actively pursue the experience of this exciting event. Months in advance, the internet and electronic news sources broadcast detailed maps of where to best appreciate the eclipse. We use our capacity to fly to converge from far-flung parts to these sites and then drive unfamiliar roads using GPS to navigate. (We also use scientifically developed high-tech glasses not to burn our eyes looking at the events in the sky!)

Engaging with the world using these tools of science is more than just a one-day dramatic example of high-tech entertainment. We needed this moment of play with these tools, but we also need these tools for the much higher-stakes existential, life-and-death issues of our day: pandemics, climate change and whatever else the world presents. The eclipse is an opportunity to explore our amazing 21st century capabilities and open up our sense of being empowered to tackle our world.

San Francisco Chronicle