April 13, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Solar Eclipse Probabilities Calculated

The probability, on average, that the spot you are standing on will see a total solar eclipse is once every 360 to 375 years, says Joe Rao, a lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium, writing for MSNBC News.  Some cities, though, like Los Angeles, have to wait 1565.9 years, and some rare spots may not see one for 36 centuries.  About 28% of solar eclipses are total.  On average, an eclipse occurs somewhere on Earth every 18 months.  The one happening Friday in the South Pacific is a hybrid, mostly annular (ring-like), but total only in the middle of the path for 42 seconds.  The article contains a table of 25 cities and their average wait between eclipses.

As a young astronomer, Guillermo Gonzalez was struck by the beauty of a total eclipse he saw in India.  This became the subject of an article called “Wonderful Eclipses” that grew into a thesis that Earth was a special place, a “Privileged Planet” that resulted in a book and film with that phrase as the title.  Gonzalez and Jay Richards found that solar eclipses were just the tip of the iceberg of a class of phenomena that illustrated an uncanny relationship between the factors that make Earth habitable and the factors that make Earth an ideal platform for scientific discovery.  Order this beautiful and thought-provoking film – once you watch it, you will be loaning it to everyone you know.
    Next time a total solar eclipse comes within a thousand miles of your home – or even farther – by all means go see it.  It’s an indescribable event that affects the entire 360° field of view, the weather, the animals, the people and the economy.  The sight of a circular black dot, blacker than midnight, surrounded by streamers of the glowing pewter-white corona will leave you breathless.  You’ll understand what makes people travel around the world to experience even a few seconds or minutes of totality.  Pictures can’t do justice to the phenomenon.
    Total solar eclipses are not just coincidental light shows; they have proven extremely important in the history of astrophysics, and have enabled archaeologists to pinpoint dates of kingdoms thousands of years ago with high accuracy.  Gonzalez discusses these matters in detail in his book.  Isn’t it a provocative thought to consider that the only platform in our solar system capable of a perfectly-matched total eclipse (due to the size-distance relationship of three bodies, the sun, the Earth and our large moon) also has sentient beings able to appreciate it?

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Categories: Solar System

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