Why does the sun REALLY not shine?

Last Sunday a dragon ate the sun. At least I think it did. I was planning to watch an annular eclipse (when the moon passes in front of the sun leaving only a perfect ring of fire for a time). This super cool astronomical event was visible throughout much of the Western United States, including my house, where it was supposed to occur around 4:00 Pacific Time. We were ready for it, too. We’d done the research and explained to our boys the danger of staring directly at the sun (for days our littlest refused to look anywhere but directly at his feet whenever he went outside).

My husband dug out the rarely used binoculars and rigged up a fancy contraption using a stepladder, some duct tape, and a piece of white poster board so that we could see a shadow of the glorious event. After much anticipation Sunday finally arrived and we remembered something very important: we live in Western Oregon where it really isn’t that rare to not see the sun. After over a week of clear sunny skies, our eclipse was completely obscured by clouds.

Instead of a (live?) shadow of an annular eclipse, we tuned in to a webcast from the National Park Service live from New Mexico where, thankfully, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So, via the miracle of the Internet, we got to see (drum roll, please) part of a white circle against a dark background. The less than spectacular image was a result of the special light filters on the camera lens because apparently it really is dangerous to look directly at the sun.

Now I’m not trying to downplay the eclipse. It really is a cool thing if you think about it, even if it is frightening and dangerous to directly observe. In fact, people have been fascinated by eclipses for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians observed eclipses at least 4500 years ago; the Chinese, at least 4000 years ago.

And why not? If the sun occasionally vanishes and the moon sometimes turns blood red, I think it might be worth taking note. As one might expect, there are lots of mythological explanations for eclipses. Almost all express a great deal of fear (leading me to believe that if the sun really were to vanish from the sky, it might be bad), and many involve a large celestial animal of some sort actually eating the sun, my favorite of which is that of Ancient China in which a dragon is responsible.

The Chinese even had a practical solution to their dragon problem because (as everyone knows) dragons are afraid of loud noises. So when the large celestial dragon showed up to eat the sun, everyone simply made as much noise as they could, banging on drums or what have you and the dragon went away. It worked! But here’s the truly strange part: there is recorded evidence of Chinese sailors setting off cannon fire to scare away the eclipse dragon as recently as the 19th century, yet Chinese astronomers understood the real scientific cause of eclipses for sure by the year 20 BCE. So why did the myth persist?

I like to think it’s because it’s true, but then again most of what I know about the sun I learned from They Might Be Giants. On their 1993 EP, the band covered a song by Hy Zaret entitled “Why Does the Sun Shine?” (If you haven’t heard it you should be ashamed of yourself). In this song, the band reveals all kinds of information about our sun, not the least of which is the fact that it is a “ball of incandescent gas.” Trouble is scientists now tell us it’s not. So in their more recent (2009) album “Here Comes Science,” the band performs a new song called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” in which they update the theory by explaining that “the sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma.”

Maybe it is. I tend to believe that scientists more or less know what they’re doing (at least until someone comes along and convinces the world they don’t), but that doesn’t change the fact that I like the first song better. It’s catchier, more fun to sing.  More importantly than that, it represents the collective scientific thoughts about the sun at the time it was written, and as such, it still has value, doesn’t it? Maybe no longer as scientific theory, but perhaps as the history of scientific theory, which is really just a reflection of how we have experienced our universe over time.

So maybe the 19th century Chinese navy really did know what was what when they fired off the cannons to scare away the sun-eating dragon, but by acknowledging the mythological history, they celebrated the noble tradition of human imagination. I like that very much.

Though unspectacular in many ways, I admit to a few shivers of awe when that dark circular blob positioned itself directly in the center of the white circle on my computer screen. I may have even cheered out loud, though that’s probably because deep down I was trying to scare away the dragon.

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