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Celestial Mechanics

October 20, 2017

 

A few weeks ago, I stood in awe as a hot mid-day sun in Southern Illinois became little more than a tiny sliver before being completely obscured by the moon.  As day became twilight and lights started blinking on, I stood transfixed by the beauty of the Sun's corona, wishing I could somehow capture the essence of the moment in a way that could really do it justice.  

 

As I reflect on the experience of a total solar eclipse, I can't help but wonder at how the experience might have been viewed by our early prescientific ancestors.  For most of human history, a solar eclipse most probably would have been viewed as an ominous message from God.  As Ross Anderson wrote in a recent article in "The Atlantic":

 

"What could be more traumatic than the abandonment of the sun? This is the energy source that powers Earth's photosynthetic food chains, the ball of fire that anchors and warms us as we twirl around in the cold cosmic void.  The sun is the giver of life.  It is also the giver of light, the ethereal stuff that illuminates the world, making it manifest to the mind." 

 

To most people who experienced the recent eclipse, the reaction varied from apathy, perhaps tinged with a little curiosity, to eager anticipation of a business windfall, to those like me who viewed it with a real sense of wonder over the power and beauty of our world and its stellar neighborhood.  

 

So why do we experience such a powerful event so differently now than we might have if we had been born a couple of thousand years ago?  Clearly, it is our understanding of the celestial mechanics of earth, moon, and the sun that have transformed how we collectively perceive an event such as a total solar eclipse.  The precision of our models of the universe, refined and tested by millions of precise measurements and computations, enabled scientists to predict the precise timing and path of the moon's shadow so that we knew exactly when totality would begin and exactly how long it would last no matter what your GPS location was.  Other aspects of the experience were predicted but not as precisely.  Weather experts predicted a hot, partly sunny day, but could not, with current technology, precisely predict whether a passing cloud would obscure the whole show at the precise spot where I happened to be.  For me, the precision of our celestial models, combined with a little good fortune paid off in an unforgettable experience.

 

Human behavior can be notoriously less predictable than the weather.  Indeed, a Nobel Prize was just awarded to an economist from the University of Chicago whose work focused on showing how the human traits of "limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control," impact individual decisions and our broader economy.

 

Amidst what often seems like the turmoil and chaos of our current moment in history, I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are a powerful model set forth to guide, sustain, and comfort us in our daily interactions with others and the world around us.  With his birth, his life, his ministry to people of all races, and his death, Jesus Christ taught us, first and foremost, to "Love the Lord your God with all your passion, prayer, and intelligence, and to love one another as well as you love yourself."  Just as the sciences have transformed our knowledge and experience of the physical world, the love of Christ can be transformational to our spiritual world.

 

Jerry Kahrs

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